ORLANDO, Fla. — You won’t find Rory McIlroy‘s name high on the leaderboard, but the fact you can see it there at all is the positive he took from his bounce-back round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Friday.
McIlroy shot 5-under-par 67 at Bay Hill Club & Lodge but lost ground to Jason Day, whose 65 put him in a commanding position through 36 holes.
“I saw him ahead of me and I got to maybe 8 behind at one point,” McIlroy said. “And I was thinking if maybe I could get to 6 behind for the weekend . . . and then I’m 11 behind. Maybe I can make up a little ground.
“But 67 was a great start today. It could have been better. If I can go out at the weekend and shoot a couple of scores similar to that, it might not be good enough, but it’ll still be a good comeback from what [I shot] yesterday.”
And what happened during the first round was clearly a concern to McIlroy, who sandwiched disappointing final days at the Northern Trust Open and the WGC-Cadillac Championship around a missed cut at the Honda Classic in his previous three starts.
McIlroy opened the tournament Thursday by hitting his tee shot out of bounds. He made two double-bogeys and only two birdies. He shot 75 and was near the bottom of a 120-player field.
That prompted him to spend more than an hour on the driving range Thursday evening.
“The shots I was hitting [during the round] I hadn’t seen in a long time,” said McIlroy, 26, who is ranked second in the world behind Jordan Spieth but in danger of being overtaken this week by Day. “I wanted to know whether it was my swing or what it was. I sort of figured out that my face angle was a little left at impact. I’d been trying to move the ball up a little bit in my stance with the driver. The face was closing a little bit and even if you’re swing it well with the face closed, at [that] speed, there is no way it is going to come back. That’s where the lefts were coming from.”
All of it was perplexing, considering McIlroy reported no issues in his game prior to the tournament.
“You should have seen the practice sessions I had in Palm Beach last week,” he said. “I was coming here full of confidence and really hitting it well. My first tee shot of the tournament . . . you hit it like that, it’s a bit of a shock. Then to follow it up with a few others. I needed to figure it out. Thankfully I was able to figure it out.”
And now the task becomes making sure he is ready for the Masters in three weeks. McIlroy, who has won four major championships, needs only a victory at Augusta National to complete the career Grand Slam.
After the Arnold Palmer Invitational, he will defend his title next week at the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship before taking off the week prior to the Masters — where, like all players, he hopes to be peaking.
“I don’t know if there is an exact science behind it,” he said. “You’re always trying to be at your best at the biggest tournaments. At the same time you want to play consistently well, week in and week out. I’ve been able to peak at the right times in previous years. I really wanted to get my week-to-week consistency better and I’ve been able to do that somewhat. My bad scores haven’t been as bad as they once were. As long as you can shoot a few good ones, you’re always going to be OK.”