ORLANDO, Fla. >> Rory McIlroy avoided a big number early and delivered his best shot late today at Bay Hill on his way to a 6-under 66, giving him a one-shot lead among early starters in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
McIlroy had his sixth consecutive opening round of 68 or lower, another great start for the world’s No. 1 player.
It just didn’t feel that way early.
Trying to hammer an 8-iron to a back flag on his second hole of the day at No. 11, the ball landed short and left of the green and rolled into the water. He took a penalty drop, hit a pedestrian chip and escaped with a bogey by making a 10-foot putt.
“To hole that putt for bogey … making 5 instead of 6 there is a big deal,” McIlroy said. “One over through 2 instead of 2 over is sort of a different feeling. And to turn that nine around and turn in under, I felt pretty good about myself going to the front nine.”
Three birdies and an eagle — a 3-iron from a fairway bunker to 25 feet — gave him a one-shot lead over Talor Gooch, who did all his scoring in a six-hole stretch.
The group at 68 included Sam Burns and Christian Bezuidenhout of South Africa, who is facing a big stretch of golf as he tries to get into the Masters. Burns was the only player to reach 7 under at any point in the round, but he finished with a bogey-double bogey to spoil an otherwise solid day.
Bay Hill was plenty tough with thick grass framing the fairway and greens that began to quicken under a warm Florida sun. Those playing in the afternoon, such as Phil Mickelson and Patrick Reed, faced a much stronger wind.
McIlroy has gone six consecutive events worldwide without finishing worse than sixth, so this was expected. Even after his bogey on No. 11, and missing a 3-foot birdie putt on the par-5 12th, he was never really bothered.
“One over through six, there’s still 66 holes left in this golf tournament,” he said.
He began turning it around with a 5-iron into about 25 feet for a two-putt birdie, and a flawlessly played 18th hole with a 3-wood off the tee and a 9-iron to 10 feet behind the flag.
And then he was off.
“Sort of had a bit of good pep in my step going into the first tee, and then I played some great golf after that,” he said.
McIlroy was never in any big trouble the rest of the way and rarely had birdie attempts outside 15 feet. He converted short birdie attempts on the first and sixth holes, made a 15-footer on No. 8 and saved par from behind the green on his final hole with a 10-foot putt.
But it was that 3-iron from the bunker on the par-5 fourth that provided the strongest illustration that this is a player in full flight as the Masters — the only major keeping him from a career Grand Slam — is right around the corner.
His caddie, Harry Diamond, told him it was his best shot of the year. It’s early March. But it was special.
“I had 260,” McIlroy said. “I said to Harry, ‘If I can catch this 3-iron good and maybe pitch 10 or 15 yards short, maybe trundle up the hill’ … but short was always better than long. At it just came out perfectly and got up to pin high.”
McIlroy was among 10 players who shots in the 60s in the morning.
Bay Hill wasn’t a breeze for most, starting with Adam Scott, He went from thick rough to the water on No. 11 for a triple bogey, pulled an iron from the fairway into the water on the par-5 16th for bogey, hit a tee shot out-of-bounds on No. 18 for double bogey and played 1 under the rest of the way for a 77.
Brooks Koepka, who added Bay Hill after missing the cut at the Honda Classic last year, shot 72 and it felt much worse considering the wins he had been piling up the last few years.
He made careless mistakes that offset four birdies and finished with two wild drives that led to bogeys.
“It’s not far enough, but it’s still annoying,” Koepka said. “I’m trying to figure it out. So it’s close, it’s not far away.”
What was he trying to figure out?
“How to play golf,” Koepka replied.