Bay Hill was bustling Thursday, just like golf before the pandemic. The fans were limited in numbers but they all wanted the same dose of entertainment provided by Rory McIlroy and Bryson DeChambeau.
First it was McIlroy, slowly feeling better about his game, and with good reason. Beginning with a 55-foot putt on the par-3 second hole, he ran off five straight birdies for a share of the lead with Canadian Corey Conners in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at 6-under 66.
In the group behind McIlroy was DeChambeau, who has been contemplating a shot across the water to cut the 528-yard sixth hole down to size by going for the green.
This was not the day with a slight breeze into his face, so the U.S. Open champion had some fun.
He took out an iron, and then hit a conservative tee shot (309 yards) to the middle of the fairway.
It was a boring birdie, his third in a row, and he opened with a 67.
“There was a high expectation level of me trying to go for the green there, and it was a little pressure that I wasn’t expecting,” DeChambeau said. “But no, it was fun. The crowds were great with it. I pulled out an iron as a joke off the tee box. And for me, it was just too much off of the right and more into the wind than anything.”
In the group with DeChambeau was Jordan Spieth, making his debut at Bay Hill, and producing high adventure in a 70 that left him satisfied he remained on track — and irritated hitting off the toe of his driver and into the water on No. 6.
Even having to hit his third from the tee, he salvaged bogey with a 25-foot putt and made a 35-foot birdie on the following hole.
“Definitely proud of the way I responded, but the way I putted today, certainly would have liked a lower number,” Spieth said. “But it all just comes down to one shot for me today.”
Conners, from Listowel, Ont., played in the afternoon and was 6 under through six holes, capped off by an eagle on the par-5 16th. He took the lead with birdie on the par-5 sixth, but concluded with a three-putt bogey from 60 feet to fall into a tie with McIlroy.