ORLANDO, Fla. – See that second red hazard stake? The one over the water? With a left-to-right crosswind, it’s about a 270-yard cover from the back tee here on the par-5 sixth hole at Bay Hill.
Flare a drive right of that line and a player will have at least 25 yards farther into the green, as Rickie Fowler did.
Tug a tee shot left of that line, and a player will flirt with the lake, as Jason Day did.
Soaked in sweat Friday morning, Rory McIlroy lined up at that tiny red stake in the distance and uncorked a beauty – a drive that sailed directly over the foot-high post. He marched after his tee before his ball had even begun its descent.
Walking back to his bag, he smirked. The satisfaction of a precise aim-and-shoot from nearly three bills away.
That big blast led to yet another birdie, his personal PGA Tour-record fifth in a row, a run that put him squarely in the mix in this Arnold Palmer Invitational and convinced just about everyone that, yep, he’s all-systems-go with only 36 holes to play before Augusta.
A day after he hit all but one green on a course he hadn’t seen before this week, McIlroy took advantage of a brilliant stretch on his final nine holes, birdied three of the four par 5s, and shot a 6-under 66 that left him only five shots back heading into the weekend.
It was the kind of macho performance we’ve come to expect at Bay Hill from a world No. 1.
“It was good,” McIlroy said. “I probably wasn’t quite as consistent tee-to-green as I was (Thursday), but the putter is a great equalizer.”
In his final tune-up before Augusta, McIlroy said it was imperative for him to get into the hunt here. Sure, he won in Dubai on Feb. 1, but he’d looked pedestrian during six Florida rounds in which he didn’t crack 70.
That was his score in the first round here, a day in which he putted for birdie on 17 of the shaggy greens but converted only three attempts. It added up to a frustrating 34-putt performance.
McIlroy hit 12 greens in the second round, and just eight of 14 fairways, but he needed only 25 swipes with the putter.
“Good to see some putts dropping,” he said.
Whether he can chase down Morgan Hoffmann (-13, five shots ahead) over the weekend matters little in the big picture. More important is the direction the world No. 1 is trending ahead of what will be the biggest week of his life.
And his arrow is pointing straight up. Again.
At Bay Hill, he is ranked inside the top 25 in driving distance, proximity to the hole and putting. That usually works.
“It’s nice to be in the mix,” he said. “Hopefully I can creep toward the top of the leaderboard the last couple of days.”
For just the third time since 2009, McIlroy won’t play either of the two Texas events as he warms up for the Masters. That put an increased importance on his performance at Arnie’s Place, if only to avoid the potential distractions – and annoying questions – about his form.
No questions here.
After turning in 34, McIlroy started his birdie barrage with an 18-footer on the par-3 second.
Then came the short iron to 6 feet on 3.
And the up-and-down from 7 feet on 4.
And the laser-like iron that kissed the flag and dropped to 18 inches on 5.
And, finally, the monster drive, the long iron safely into the greenside bunker and the splash to 12 feet for one last birdie on 6.
“I felt like I was pretty tidy,” he said.
No better sign for Augusta.