But for an infamous fairway wood shot, which splashed into a Dubai pond to background screams of shock, Rory McIlroy would already have a 2022 victory to his name. The scale of anger write large across McIlroy’s face after his late collapse at the Desert Classic will linger with anyone who witnessed it.
McIlroy’s superb opening round of 65 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida suggested he remains of a mind to right that Emirates Club wrong. McIlroy marched into an early lead where he has won once before, in 2018. Thoughts immediately and understandably turned towards what it would mean for McIlroy should he claim a tournament triumph before an annual trip down Magnolia Lane.
“Regardless of when it comes in the season, it’s nice to win,” McIlroy said. “This is my fourth start of the calendar year. I’ve had one really good chance to win and probably one other half chance. I feel like I’m playing well enough to have chances to win golf tournaments, but all you can ask of yourself is to keep putting yourself in those positions on Sundays and then you see where your game really is.
“Hopefully, this is another week where I put myself in a position where I can really see where my game is when the pressure is on.”
Reflecting on Dubai, McIlroy admitted to mistakes when the watching world least expected them. “I did all the hard stuff right,” he said. “I made par on 14, par on 15, par on 16. Then you’ve got two gettable holes on 17, 18 and those are the holes where I made the mistakes.
“So I did the hard part and whenever the opportunity came to sort of shut the door and win the tournament, I didn’t do that. That was what was most frustrating.”
McIlroy’s day one at Bay Hill was most notable for an eagle putt, converted from 41ft at the 16th, his 7th. He returned six birdies and just one dropped shot. Ominously for the field, McIlroy’s putting looks back to its best. For now, McIlroy’s advantage is two from Beau Hossler, JJ Spaun and Billy Horschel.
Graeme McDowell’s 68 was timely as he looks to catapult himself back towards golfing prominence. McDowell started this week as the world No 399.
“I’ve been trending in the right direction,” he said. “I’ve been struggling to put it all together lately but there’s been a lot of good stuff happening with my game the last three or four months. Scores maybe haven’t suggested it but I played fantastic in Phoenix a couple weeks ago and just made nothing. Got off to a great start in Palm Springs and just didn’t continue it. There’s been a lot of really, really good stuff happening in my game.”
Adam Scott, playing in McIlroy’s company, signed for the same score as McDowell. “Rory is a guy I can watch play and get positive swing thoughts for myself,” Scott said. “I love watching him swing at a golf club.” Henrik Stenson was three under after five but had to settle for a 73. Justin Rose made a two-over-by 74.