Aussies on the march as McIlroy stumbles
Jason Day led the charge for Australia as his compatriots Adam Scott and Marc Leishman tucked in behind him at the top end of the leaderboard in round one of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Florida.
Scott, chasing a third win in three starts, and Leishman were among the early pace-setters at five-under par 67 before Day leaped to pole position with a stylish 66.
But as the wizards of Oz stamped their authority on the challenging Bay Hill layout, world No 3 Rory McIlroy went in the opposite direction.
A double-bogey six on the first hole set the tone for a lacklustre performance.
Credit to him, McIlroy never stopped trying but the round was forgettable, and at three-over-par 75, he faces a struggle to make the cut today.
Graeme McDowell played alongside Justin Rose and Matt Kuchar, and had to settle for a 71, one-under par.
It was not a disaster but it could have been better without the blemish of a couple of penalty shots for visiting the water, which were instrumental in hauling him back from the three-under-par mark he reached at one point in his round.
McDowell's shot of the day came at the par-five 16th, his seventh hole, where he holed out a greenside bunker shot.
Tournament leader Day did not have everything his own way either.
However, a five-under-par 31 on the back nine, with the highlight an eagle three on the par-five 16th, where he struck a six-iron to ten feet and holed out, left him very satisfied.
Day could have slipped back into the group on five-under, but for a great par save on the 18th where he got up and down from thick rough ten yards off the green.
The US PGA champion admitted he has made a slow start to the post-Christmas campaign and said: "This is early days in the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
"I got off to a great start. I know this is a very tough golf course, so I just made sure I was patient with myself and tried to keep everything in front of me," he said.
Marc Leishman posted his 67 in the morning, soon to be followed by fellow Aussie Adam Scott.
Scott surfed the wave of his recent winning form to join the clubhouse leaders and give himself a solid platform to challenge for a third successive victory.
The Australian, who took a week off following his back-to-back wins in the Honda Classic and the WGC-Cadillac Championship, threw down the gauntlet to all challengers by posting 67, five-under par.
He and Leishman were joined among the early bolters out of the pack on 67 by Henrik Stenson, Brendan Steele, and Troy Merritt.
Scott, Masters champion in 2013, went bogey-free in a round that featured an eagle three on the par-five 16th, his seventh hole.
He now has a chance to emulate the last player to win in three consecutive starts on the PGA Tour - and that happens to be Rory McIlroy.
The Northern Irishman's 2014 hat-trick was spectacular, first claiming the Open Championship, then the WGC-Bridgestone championship, and capping off a wonderful run with his US PGA Championship success.
Scott cannot throw a Major into the mix right now, but if he could go all the way this week, the Adelaide-born golfer would deserve all the applause for achieving a very rare feat.
McIlroy, who also rested last week, embarked on his first round shortly after morning starter Scott was safely home and very satisfied with his performance.
"It's a good score today," said Scott.
"We've got beautiful conditions out there. I didn't play my best golf tee to green but I chipped and putted really well today, so that's always a nice feeling when you leave the course, shooting as low as you probably can."
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