ORLANDO, Fla. (March 4, 2021) – Every time he tees it up at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard, Rory McIlroy must wear the same bright, broad smile befitting the legend whose name the tournament bears and whose famed, red cardigan was outfitted to the 31-year-old from Northern Ireland just three years ago.
The 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational champion and World No. 8 opened the 43rd edition of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge with a 6-under-par 66 to share the tournament lead with Canadian Corey Conners after Thursday’s first round.
Both co-leaders began their rounds on No. 10. Conners got off to a blistering start as he birdied the first three holes and followed up a birdie at No. 15 with an eagle on the par-5 16th hole, which catapulted him to 6-under-par after seven holes. McIlroy, a four-time major champion, recorded five consecutive birdies from Nos. 2-6, after making his turn.
An 18-time PGA TOUR winner, McIlroy has finished sixth or better in this event over the past four years (T5 in 2020, T6 in 2019, T4 in 2017). He has placed out of the top 11 once while playing here every year since his Arnold Palmer Invitational debut in 2015.
“I've always felt comfortable here,” McIlroy said of Bay Hill. “Take care of the par-5s. I think the toughest thing about this course is the par-3s and I played them in 3-under today. So that was a bonus.
“I think that I saw a stat the other day that this course, more than any other one on the PGA TOUR, the correlation between strokes gained off the tee and performance at this course is higher than anywhere else. And, obviously, myself and Bryson (DeChambeau) – No. 1 and 2 in strokes gained off the tee for the season – and we both shot two good scores today.”
Indeed, the long-hitting DeChambeau is on McIlroy’s heels after firing a 5-under 67. The reigning U.S. Open champion birdied two of his first three holes and, after the turn, notched three consecutive birdies at Nos. 4-6. While he has teased the idea of attempting to drive the green – over the lake – on the par-5 sixth hole, his 309-yard drive into the fairway helped set up a 32-foot putt that he made for birdie.
“There was definitely a high expectation level of me trying to go for the green, but the driver that I have this week is a little more for accuracy and it is slower … but it's going in the fairway more,” said DeChambeau.
“It was a little pressure that I wasn't expecting. It was fun. The crowds were great with it. I pulled out an iron as a joke off the tee box. If it was one of my normal drivers at 2,000 spin, I totally could have done it today. But if it's more downwind, I'll be able to do it tomorrow, hopefully, or sometime during the weekend.”
World No. 31 Jason Kokrak, who bagged his first PGA TOUR title in October, shot 4-under 68 and is tied for fourth place alongside Korean Byeong Hun An and Colombia’s Sebastian Munoz.
World No. 13 Viktor Hovland, World No. 16 Matthew Fitzpatrick, 2011 Arnold Palmer Invitational champion Martin Laird and 2020 Masters runner-up Sungjae Im, who placed third here last year, are among a group of eight players tied for seventh at 3-under 69.
Three-time major champion Jordan Spieth, making his Arnold Palmer Invitational debut, and 2016 Arnold Palmer Invitational winner Jason Day are among a group of 15 golfers tied for 15th at 2-under 70. Spieth’s round was highlighted by his 19½-foot eagle putt on the par-5 16th hole.
World No. 6 Tyrrell Hatton, the defending champion and highest-ranked player in this week’s 123-player field, bogeyed six of nine holes and struggled to a 5-over 77.