(Reuters) – Rory McIlroy was under water early but sitting high and dry by the end of the opening round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, one stroke behind leader Matt Every in Orlando, Florida on Thursday.
World number one McIlroy, the 2018 champion, made an inauspicious start when he plunked his approach shot into a lake at his second hole at Bay Hill, but he roared back with five birdies and an eagle.
The Northern Irishman shot six-under-par 66 in pleasant morning conditions at Bay Hill, a score that was surprisingly bettered by American Matt Every in more demanding strong afternoon winds.
Every, a two-times Bay Hill winner who has not won anywhere else on tour, showed his affinity for the course by making seven birdies.
McIlroy, who started at the 10th tee, was particularly pleased with his driving.
“I only missed one or two fairways and if you can do that around this place, especially with how juicy the rough is, you’re going to give yourself a lot of chances,” McIlroy told reporters.
“I hit some really good shots coming in, drove it really well.”
Perhaps none was better than his second at the par-five fourth, where McIlroy struck a sublime fairway bunker shot some 260 yards before draining the 25-foot eagle putt.
While McIlroy’s score was almost expected, Every’s was a horses-for-courses performance.
He has had only one top-70 finish since his return in January from a 12-week suspension for a positive cannabis test. He said he used the substance for medical reasons and was legally prescribed the drug in Florida.
“Sometimes I’m really good, sometimes I’m really bad,” he said. “It’s a weird game.
“I really just didn’t want to shoot myself out of the tournament. There’s so much trouble out here and I’m not scared to make a double (bogey) here and there.”
Every sank two monster putts in quick succession, a 35-footer at his 10th hole followed by a 50-footer at the next.
“Complete luck,” he said. “Sometimes they just go in.”
Brooks Koepka, who McIlroy recently displaced at the top of the rankings, bogeying his final two holes for an even-par 72.
He said he was struggling for confidence in his battle to find form on his return from a knee injury, a startling admission from someone normally so self-assured.
The event features a high quality field though notably missing eight-times champion Tiger Woods, who is playing a very limited schedule ahead of defending his Masters title next month.
Defending champion Francesco Molinari pulled out shortly before his round citing a back injury.
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina, editing by Ed Osmond)