Why the Arnold Palmer Invitational is so hard this year
- Senior golf writer for ESPN.com
- Covered golf for more than 20 years
- Earned Evans Scholarship to attend Indiana University
ORLANDO, Fla. — A touch of winter — relatively speaking — descended upon Florida on Saturday, making for a treacherous day of golf at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. And with nobody breaking 70 at the Bay Hill Club, it set up what should be a wide-open final round.
1. Frigid Florida
With temperatures in the 40s on Saturday morning, and a blustery wind throughout the afternoon, Bay Hill was historically hard, yielding a scoring average higher than any round going back to 1983. The scoring average inched close to 76 (75.913), and nobody shot a round in the 60s — a first on the PGA Tour since the second round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral in 2014.
Max Homa was the only player in the field to shoot under par, and his score of 70 included a double-bogey at the 18th hole.
Throw in last week’s torture test at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens and the Florida Swing has been a brute so far.
“If you look at the winning score of last week and this week, most of the majors, maybe only one might be a higher score, depending on the conditions and whatnot,” said Rickie Fowler, who shot 77 and is tied for 23rd. “But it is very rare that you see single-digit [under par] scores winning PGA Tour events.
“And that’s nothing against the players; just shows you how hard it is. And for it to not be 8 or 9 under; last week, what was it, 6 under? That’s pretty rare to see that. I mean, you can’t explain or reiterate how much more difficult it is than just a standard setup.”
2. Why so tough?
Francesco Molinari won with a total of 276, 12 under par, in 2019, shooting a final-round 64. Rory McIlroy also shot 64 to win in 2018, going even lower at 270, 18 under par.
Tyrrell Hatton leads this year at 211, 6 under par, and he will be hard-pressed to make it to 10 under.
“I think a lot of people are sitting at home saying what they would do out here, but I wouldn’t wish it on any average or normal player to go try and play what we did out there,” Fowler said.
“The greens are firm,” he said. “Fairways are getting firm, so the ball’s running out, so even the layups are getting sort of tricky. Even if you do hit the fairways to get it within sort of 20 feet for a putt that you’re even thinking about holing … you’re sort of hitting it to 30, 40 feet all day, being defensive, just trying to lag it up there, tap it in, move on.”
3. Rory, again
This is getting to be a weekly occurrence for McIlroy, the No. 1-ranked player in the world who seems to be in contention every time he tees it up. That’s part of the reason he is No. 1.
Going back to his Tour Championship win in August, McIlroy has been out of the top 10 in just 10 tournaments, with eight top-5 finishes. He has another shot on Sunday, after a 1-over-par 73 left him two shots back of Hatton and in a tie for second with Marc Leishman.
“I think it’s going to be a similar day,” McIlroy said. “So I’m confident in my game. I think my ballstriking’s been good. I was pretty good off the tee [on Saturday]. I’m thinking well around the course. I feel like my distance control’s been pretty good. The greens are getting firm, so really having to land the ball on your numbers.
“I feel good with my game. I mean, I holed some nice putts today, holed some better putts and hit some better putts than I did the first couple days. So everything, everything’s pretty good. I just — I think [the final round is] all about keeping the big numbers off your card and just trying to play as conservative as possible and pick up some birdies on the par 5s if you can. And if you can get it in the red for the day, you’re going to have a good chance.”
4. Look out for Leish
Leishman won at Bay Hill three years ago and tied for seventh in 2018. Ranked 21st in the world, he is in prime position to get his sixth PGA Tour victory on Sunday, just two shots out of the lead.
“I actually added up my score, my scorecard in the scorer’s hut there, and kind of did a double take,” Leishman said. “I added up to 72, and it felt like shot a 65, not a 72. It was really tough. The greens were firm, fast. It was exactly how you wanted the golf course to play, really. Par was a great score, and hopefully I can play like that again [Sunday].”
Leishman is the only player in the field who has failed to shoot over par this week.
5. Woe is Koepka
Brooks Koepka will have an early tee time on Sunday due to his career-worst PGA Tour score of 81 on Saturday, and he will be looking to find something to build on as a busy schedule continues. Koepka, who has struggled since returning from a knee issue, took it in stride, saying, “I’m a big boy.” He has continued to stress that his indifferent play of late is not due to the knee problems. And he appears committed to getting it turned around quickly.
The Arnold Palmer Invitational is the second of five consecutive weeks of tournament golf that will include the Players Championship, the Valspar Championship and the WGC-Dell Match Play.
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