Rory McIlroy inspired by Tiger Woods as he fires seven-birdie 66 to lead Arnold Palmer Invitational
Seven birdies, including five in a row over the second half of his round, lift 2018 champion Rory McIlroy to the top of the leaderboard as "Tiger tactics" pay off around Bay Hill Country Club
By Keith Jackson
Last Updated: 05/03/21 9:01am
Rory McIlroy revealed that taking notes of how Tiger Woods navigated his way around Bay Hill in his prime was key to an encouraging, opening 66 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
After initially struggling to get any momentum into his round, McIlroy burst into life with five consecutive birdies on the front nine and looked sharper in all departments as he raced to the top of the leaderboard on six under, alongside Corey Conners and one ahead of Bryson DeChambeau.
The Bay Hill layout has been softened by recent rainfall, with conditions playing into the hands of the power players, and McIlroy took advantage of his length and accuracy off the tee as he comfortably outplayed Tyrrell Hatton and Francesco Molinari in the marquee group of the last three champions.
Hatton made only one birdie in a 77 and Molinari was one shot worse after dropping three shots over the final two holes, but McIlroy ignored the plights of his playing partners and picked apart the front nine in ruthless style.
After starting on the 10th, McIlroy was unable to birdie either of the par-fives on the back side, but he did roll in birdie putts from 15 feet at both par-threes before a misjudged wedge into the 18th came up short and he could not stave off his first bogey of the day.
It was a familiar tale of "two steps forward and one back" for the 2018 winner, but he found the spark he needed to ignite his bid for a first victory in 15 months, holing a mammoth 55-foot putt for a bonus birdie at the second which, had it missed the hole, would have trundled at least six feet past the cup.
McIlroy atoned for another sub-par wedge into the third by holing from outside 22 feet, with his decision to return to a traditional blade-style putter at The Concession last week beginning to look justified as he putted with greater authority and confidence.
The world No 8 found the par-five fourth and sixth greens in two to set up routine two-putt birdies either side of another gain at the fifth, and McIlroy was suddenly looking down on the field with DeChambeau emerging as his closest rival from the early wave of starters before Conners matched his 66 late on.
"Obviously a 66 is a great way to start the tournament," said McIlroy, who admitted taking a little inspiration from how Tiger Woods used to tackle Bay Hill in his eight victories at the Orlando venue.
"I feel like you don't have to do anything special to shoot a good score here. You can be really conservative off the tees if you want to be, so there are a bunch of irons that you can hit off tees. I think the toughest thing about this course is the par-threes and I played them in three under today, so that was a bonus.
"But I've watched Tiger enough here over the years and the way he played this course was, he played it very conservatively, he took care of the par-fives, and that was usually good enough to get the job done. So I've taken a little bit of a leaf out of his book.
"The first few holes were a little slow going and I made a really good birdie on 14 and that sort of got me, got the round going. The two twos on the back nine were great. Coming off last week where I really struggled on the par-threes, so it was quite a turnaround.
"But I played well after that and hit some really good shots, some good drives, I saw a lot of really positive signs out there today, which is really encouraging.
"I've always felt comfortable here. I think I saw a stat the other day that this course, more than any other on the PGA Tour, the correlation between strokes gained off the tee and performance at this course is higher than anywhere else. And obviously myself and Bryson are No 1 and 2 in strokes gained off the tee, and we both shot two good scores today.
"It's one of these places where you can give yourself an advantage by taking driver and getting it up there, tee shots like three and six, where some of the shorter guys are having to go up the sliver of fairway up the right when longer guys don't have to really worry about that."