ORLANDO, Fla. – On a historically difficult day at Bay Hill, Graeme McDowell and Hideki Matsuyama combined for eight bogeys and two doubles across their first seven holes Saturday. Sensing his boss was in need of a chuckle, McDowell’s caddie, Ken Comboy, woofed: “People are paying to watch this, you know.”
Hey, G-Mac was trying, but with 25-mph gusts, juicy rough and cement greens, there wasn’t much to enjoy as Bay Hill provided the stiffest test of the season Saturday. The carnage: zero rounds in the 60s, one player under par (Max Homa, 2 under) and a 75.9 scoring average – the highest here since 1983.
Midway through the front nine, searching for answers, fearing the worst, McDowell started to have a mini-freakout. “I wasn’t ruling 85 out at one point,” he said. “That’s really unsettling in itself. It’s scary when you’re trying to shoot 60, and it’s also scary when 90 is in the equation. Both are equally terrifying.”
McDowell managed to card a 4-over 76 and wasn’t disappointed. Marc Leishman added up his 72 in the scoring tent and sat there stunned, wondering how he wasn’t five or six shots lower. Rickie Fowler (77) predicted a 10-handicapper, if he hit every fairway and was in perfect position, would still shoot in the mid-80s.
“I wouldn’t wish it on any average or normal player to go try and play what we did out there,” Fowler said.
So that prompted a natural follow-up. The viewers at home, or those reading this story, will see the gusty winds and the big numbers and think: Huh. Tough day out there.
But how tough was it? Here are a few examples, straight from the players:
The sixth hole, Part 1
With a good drive, the severe dogleg-left par 5 is easily reachable with a mid-iron, but Fowler toed his tee shot and didn’t carry the water. “One of the most difficult [today] might have been the second drive on 6,” he said. “One, it’s already a fine line that you’re picking and having to fit the ball in and where the ball needs to land. And when you’ve made a mistake, or you hit one in the water and you go back and hit another one, to hit a good shot after that is very hard, because you’re typically going to miss the complete opposite way.” Fowler actually navigated that part well: He pummeled his next drive 328 yards down the center. Then he fatted a 5-iron into the water and walked off with a quadruple-bogey 9.
The sixth hole, Part 2
Rory McIlroy had a different memory of the sixth: “I had a putt that should have probably broke a cup right to left, and it broke the other way just because it got a gust of wind,” he said. “So it’s almost like you’ve got to time when to hit it as well, and by the time you’ve done your pre-shot routine and you’re over the ball and going to take it back, the wind could have completely switched or gusted or did something, and the shot that you’re trying to hit isn’t the appropriate shot anymore because of that.”
The 11th hole
After a 221-yard tee shot, Harris English had nearly as long left for his approach.
“I left myself too far in,” he said. “I thought the wind was going to be off the left. I hit 4-iron [off the tee] like I’ve been hitting all week, and I had 205 to the flag. That’s one of the toughest greens out here already, and that was probably the best shot of the day – a 4-iron that went just over the green and into the bunker. Then you’re downwind and you’re not going to get it close.”
English made bogey, but he wasn’t alone: The top 8 players on the leaderboard played the 11th hole in a combined 8 over par Saturday.
The 15th hole
Not even the API leader, Tyrrell Hatton, could avoid the stress of the day. Playing out of the fairway bunker, he came up 15 yards short of the green, in a precarious spot just outside the sand.
“All I could think about was duffing it in the bunker because my feet are in the bunker,” he said. “I’m gripping right at the bottom of the grip. I’ve got my hands pushed way higher than I would like, and I’ve got the face wide open. You’re kind of looking at it like, I could shank this, or I could literally duff it like 5 feet in front of me. Having about a 7- or 8-foot par putt, I was over the moon with.”
Hatton still missed the par save, but he made up for it with birdies on 16 and 18 that gave him a two-shot lead over McIlroy and Leishman.
The 17th hole
When he was first asked to single out his toughest shot, Collin Morikawa sighed: “I don’t even remember what happened out there. That’s how hard it was.”
Then his caddie, J.J. Jakovac, interrupted. “Seventeen!” he said. “I can’t believe they didn’t move up the tee. He hit 2-iron. Hit the sickest shot of the day on that hole.”
OK, sure, Morikawa agreed. “It’s 213 to the pin. Can’t go at the pin because it’s too firm. All day we haven’t found one ball mark. You’re aiming it left, where the pin was the first day, but you have about three yards to land it. If it gets caught up in the wind, you’re in the bunker or water. If you flush the club that’s too much, you’re over the green in the water.”
Morikawa hit one of the best shots all day there ... to 25 feet. The 17th yielded one birdie all day.
The 18th hole
McDowell calls the approach into Bay Hill’s home hole the “hardest second shot in the world.”
And on a day like today?
“If you bail left, getting the downslope in those traps? Ugh. Nasty,” he said. “There’s no real bailout apart from short. So I had 181 yards from the left-semi rough, which is a green light, and so I said, ‘Kenny, what do you want me to do here?’ He goes, ‘It’s just a 5-iron left of the flag.’ So I said, ‘Uhhhh ... ooooook ... give me the 5-iron then. And I’m just trying not to hit it in the water and the left bunker.”
McDowell pulled off the shot – 22 feet, a two-putt par – which made for a satisfying end to a trying day. Most weren’t so fortunate.