Tiger rolls as Rory suffers late agony
Tiger Woods impressed yet again but Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry were left to rue final-hole disasters in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
It could have been an even better first day for McIlroy, who has struggled for over a month, missing two of four cuts.
But he drove out of bounds left at the 18th, finishing with a double-bogey six for a 69 that could have been far better.
It wasn't quite the triple-bogey finish that saw Lowry sign for a costly 75.
But after playing almost flawlessly to be five under after 17 holes, he will be drawing on those positives rather than the fairways he missed over his last three driving holes.
The Holywood native was tied for 11th in the clubhouse with a resurgent Graeme McDowell, five shots behind Sweden's Henrik Stenson, who made nine birdies and officially used his putter just 20 times in an eight-under 64 to lead by three shots from 2016 US PGA winner Jimmy Walker and world number seven Rickie Fowler.
Woods, meanwhile, was more than pleased to see his fused back stand up to the chilly early morning conditions, moving quickly three-under after seven before a rare wild drive ended up tangled in a mesh fence and was deemed out of bounds at the 420-yard third, his 12th.
A six there didn't appear to faze him, however, and he birdied the par-five fourth and sixth, then rolled in a slick, 71-footer from the fringe for a two at the seventh before curling home an 11-footer for par at his final hole.
"I've gotten the feel of playing tournament rounds," said Woods, who admitted that his long birdie putt at the seventh was fortunate to find the hole.
"It was coming over that hill a little too quick. I was just trying to lag it down there, just make my par and get outta here and it had a crash at the hole, which I'm not complaining about, and it went in."
If Woods and McIlroy showed signs that they're finding form for the Masters, world No 215 McDowell knows he needs to win soon if he's to make a tenth appearance at Augusta National next month.
Despite the disappointment of closing with a 77 in the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club last month when he was just two shots behind eventual winner Bubba Watson starting the final round, the Portrush man was pleased at least to contend that week.
Confident a watershed week is not far away, he made two birdies and an eagle three at the 16th, his seventh, and dropped just one shot thanks to some accurate play from the tee.
"The game continues to be trending in the right direction," McDowell said. "I feel like mentally I'm starting to gear into where I need to be and it's just a case of really being patient.
"It's rounds like today that I'll really kind of gain that confidence and belief that I need and I just got to keep pouring that back in and someday, somewhere, we'll get it going again."
With two runner-up finishes and four missed cuts in ten starts at what amounts to a home venue for him, McDowell is hoping to build on his solid start at Bay Hill.
"My history around here's a little ragged - I've had a lot of missed cuts, but I had a couple of seconds and couple of top-10s - and I do like this golf course," he said.
After missing four of his first five cuts this year, Pádraig Harrington bogeyed the last for an otherwise encouraging 71.
But the 18th proved more costly for Lowry, whose game has also been trending upwards in recent weeks.
After getting back to level-par for the day by rolling in a five-footer for eagle at the 16th, he found greenside sand at the 18th and ran through the green with his third, finishing amongst the rocks fronting the water hazard.
He then took three more to get down after a penalty drop, signing for a three-over 75.
On the Sunshine Tour, Neil O'Briain's hopes of winning the Bobby Locke Trophy awarded to the Rookie of the Year suffered a blow when his hip and back muscles went into spasm on the range before teeing off.
"Fought as good as I could but looks, bar a miracle, I'll have to WD tomorrow," O'Briain said after a seven-over 79 at Serengeti Golf & Wildlife Estate left him second last in the 42-strong field.
O'Briain has a (Rand) R14,372 lead over rival Zack Byrd but the American is 23rd after a 73 and a top 20 finish could be enough for him if O'Briain withdraws.
Arnold Palmer Invitational, live, Sky Sports Golf, 6.0pm (featured groups from 12.0)