ORLANDO, Fla. – Rory McIlroy was in the middle of making five straight birdies Thursday afternoon at Bay Hill when Mark Fulcher, caddie for Francesco Molinari, turned to a small group of media following McIlroy’s group.
“This is the best I’ve seen him play,” said Fulcher, who was a part of many McIlroy groupings during his 11 years on Justin Rose’s bag.
McIlroy later called his opening 6-under 66, which gave him an early lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his best round of the year.
“I saw a lot of really positive signs out there today,” said McIlroy, who opened the new year in Abu Dhabi with a 64 but had since broken 70 just six times in 17 worldwide rounds while, more importantly, fighting his swing.
McIlroy said he felt “unprepared” to play Riviera two weeks ago before missing the cut at the Genesis Invitational. He had practiced too hard, he reckoned last week at Concession, and that those cram sessions caused him to neglect other aspects of his game. He was starting to take extra time over the ball because he just wasn’t comfortable, and when he would pull the trigger, the ball flight would too often be different than he expected.
“I’m still searching a little bit,” McIlroy said in the aftermath of Sunday’s T-6 finish at the WGC-Workday. “I guess if I can come to a World Golf Championship with the best players in the world and not feel like I'm my best and still contend, I guess that's a good sign.”
In just a few days, McIlroy’s confidence has seemingly flipped on a dime. It certainly helps that McIlroy is back in the friendly confines of Arnie’s Place, where he’s won once (2018), posted four straight top-6s and now carded more than half of his 25 rounds (14) in the 60s. But the way he struck and putted it Thursday, he could’ve been at Barnie’s Place. He did miss six fairways and five greens, but aside from a poor approach at No. 18, where he came up well short and made bogey, McIlroy didn’t have any bad misses and looked to have regained his usual swagger.
McIlroy ranked top 10 on Thursday in both strokes gained: tee-to-green and strokes gained: putting, and he birdied three par-3s – No. 14 from 13 feet, No. 17 from 15 feet and No. 2 from 55 feet. McIlroy was especially pleased with his tee balls at Nos. 14 and 17, where he was able to hit tight, little draws into the fan.
“Those shots last week that I was trying to hit were missing the target 20 yards left,” McIlroy said, “so it was nice to just see them coming out in the window I was anticipating.”
During his five-birdie run, at Nos. 2-6, McIlroy also holed a 22-footer for birdie at No. 3, stuck one inside 5 feet at No. 5 and birdied both par-5s. Surprisingly, though, he parred the two three-shotters on the back side. If McIlroy has learned anything over the years from Tiger Woods, an eight-time champion at Bay Hill, it's that if he does nothing else this week but takes care of the long holes, he'll have a chance to win.
“I feel like you don't have to do anything special to shoot a good score here,” McIlroy said. “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-5s, and that was usually good enough to get the job done.
“So, [I'll] sort of take a little bit of a leaf out of his book.”
Of course, if McIlroy builds off Thursday's performance, he'll take care of more than just four holes a day.