ORLANDO, Fla. – So…how’s your bracket looking? Completely obliterated, or only partially on fire?
While much of the country was transfixed by the annual upset-strewn (and bracket-busting) opening day of the NCAA basketball tournament, golf’s No. 1 seed took center stage Thursday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. In his first start at Bay Hill, Rory McIlroy gave himself opportunity after opportunity, only to brick a bevy of wide-open birdie looks.
His 2-under 70 didn’t do him much damage; unlike the NCAA Tournament, you can't get bounced from Bay Hill on Thursday. McIlroy sits just four shots behind leader Morgan Hoffmann. But his initial post-round reaction was simply to purse his lips behind the 18th green as he recounted all the putts that failed to drop.
“It could have been much better,” McIlroy said.
Make no mistake, there were signs of progress. Gone were the flared drives that led to a missed cut at the Honda Classic. And his 3-iron avoided the watery fate of its predecessor two weeks ago at Doral.
McIlroy was quick to point out that the work he put in alongside coach Michael Bannon last week has already begun to pay dividends, and the stat line bears that out: 10 of 14 fairways hit, and 17 of 18 greens in regulation. Were it not for an ill-fated approach to No. 16, the Ulsterman could have become the first player to go 18 for 18 at Bay Hill since Mike Hulbert in 1995.
But while he made it look easy from tee to green, there was nothing easy about his time on the putting surfaces, which will be replaced this summer and can be described as slow at best.
McIlroy took 34 putts, losing more than half a shot to the field. He made only two putts longer than 5 feet - a 17-foot birdie try on No. 8 and a 14-footer on No. 18 to close his round. He didn’t make a single birdie in between.
“I guess when the greens are like they are, you’re going to have to stay patient because you’re going to hit good putts that don’t go in,” McIlroy said. “I felt like I didn’t trust myself with some of the putts that are there today. I didn’t trust the reads and just was sort of in two minds quite a lot.”
McIlroy’s only errant approach led to his only bogey. Bunkered off the tee on No. 16 – a hole that host Arnold Palmer described Wednesday as a “weak par-5” – McIlroy eschewed an easy layup and opted to go for the green. He found water instead.
“I had 180-something [yards] to the front. It was nothing,” he said. “It wasn’t a great lie, but because the ball was below my feet I was expecting it to squirt out a little right.”
Despite the hiccups, don’t expect McIlroy to grind out 10-footers on the putting green – he had a pending a dinner date with the tournament host, after all. And while his opening round proved frustrating, McIlroy continues to keep at least part of his attention on his next start, where the green speeds could make Bay Hill seem like shag carpet.
“I’ve got two weeks from here until Augusta to practice my putting and get acquainted with the greens that are of a similar speed,” he said. “It will be nice to putt well here to get myself back in the tournament, but if I keep hitting good shots like I did today, then hopefully the putts will fall. I just need to stay as patient as I can.”
Yes, patience – the trait that will be preached by college basketball coaches across the country this weekend. McIlroy appears to have that in spades right now, to go along with some nearly flawless ball striking.
If the putts begin to drop, he could really start playing like a No. 1 seed.