Among the last to finish Friday’s second round, McIlroy was told that leader Viktor Hovland earlier took only 23 putts. And that Tyrrell Hatton, who, along with McIlroy and Gooch, are two shots back, hit only 22 putts. McIlroy’s response to Hovland?
“See how he does tomorrow.”
And to Hatton?
“See how he does tomorrow.”
To date this PGA Tour golf year, we’ve been blessed by birdies. Or bombarded, if penalty strokes and triple bogeys (or worse!) are more your thing. It all began with Cameron Smith’s whopping 34-under win at the Tournament of Champions, then snowballed from there — 23-under at both the Sony and American Express, 15-under by two players at the Farmers (at Torrey Pines, no less), 19-under at Pebble Beach (at Pebble Beach, no less!) and 16-under in Phoenix, before last week’s mild 10-under at the Honda. Then came this week. Then came Friday. All told, just five players were better than three-under for the tournament, with Hovland leading at nine-under; during the second round, only 18 players in the 120-player field broke par.
How brutal was it? Gooch was also among the last to limp off Bay Hill after the second round, and these were his first seven words to reporters afterward:
“I don’t want to go play again.”
Here, then, is what has made Arnie’s place breathe fire. And what could make things even more hellish. To quote McIlroy, let’s see how they do tomorrow.
The greens are fast fast
The greens are faster than you say three-putt. And they’ve been only getting faster. To understand just how much so from the Wednesday pro-am to Thursday’s first round, we’ll call on world No. 1 Jon Rahm, who’s playing his first Arnold Palmer.
“There was a significant difference from the golf course I played yesterday in the pro-am to what I found in the first few holes,” he said. “Those greens yesterday are receptive. You could stop long irons very, very easily. Short irons were even spinning back, and the greens weren’t that fast.
“We get to 1, and we see the golf course that we see. Those greens were already a little crunchy, and it’s Thursday. You’re not going to back up anything, and if you hit a long iron in, you can expect easily five to 10 paces of release. So big difference.”
To explain best the difference Friday morning to Friday afternoon, McIlroy’s warning to Hovland and Hatton works well. Dew and darkness softened the greens to start the second round. Then they turned on the oven. The same concept will be in play for Saturday, but it also remains to be seen how soft — or hard — the greens will be at the beginning.
Said McIlroy: “They’ll be — yeah, glassy and firm and — you know, they’ll be tricky. It’s still you just have to land it on your spots with the right spin and the right trajectory. So you just have to be so, so precise whenever the greens get like this. Just puts even more of a premium on hitting the ball in the fairway so that you can put some spin on the ball to control it into these greens.”
Said Gooch: “I don’t know if they can get the greens any firmer or faster without it getting ridiculous. There would be a few players not too happy if that were the case.”
The rough is rough
The Bay Hill has grown its fairway rough to lottery length — you might get lucky with a lie, you might not; you might be able to hit a green; you might not be able to connect at all. So thick is it that Adam Scott, one of the game’s longest hitters, shelved his driver in the hope of avoiding it. So gnarly is it that more than one player has whispered “U.S. Open.”
“The rough is incredibly thick,” Scott said. “It’s a half-shot penalty almost every time you hit it in it. “
The wind won’t be a breeze
Graeme McDowell, twice a runner-up at Bay Hill, said the conditions on Thursday morning were “the most benign” he had ever seen, and the scores reflected it. At the earlier mentioned Tournament of Champions, Justin Thomas described well what happens when you pit good players against no defense.
“Golf fans just need to understand what causes scores,” he said. “I think everybody, they just see, ‘Oh, they’re hitting it so far now; that’s why it’s so low.’ It’s like no, it’s so low because it’s so soft, and if you give us soft conditions, fairways this big, course this short, we’re going to shoot nothing. Then if you give us not very much wind, we’re going to shoot even lower.”
On Saturday, according to weather.com, there will be 15 mph winds. On Sunday, they will blow at 14 mph. In other words, decisions will have to be made.
The course is already not easy
Even without fast greens, thick rough and wind, Bay Hill is no picnic. Previous winning scores give some indication of that. Last year, Bryson DeChambeau won with an 11-under total. In the five years before that, Hatton won at four-under, Francesco Molinari won at 12-under, McIlroy was at 18-under, Marc Leishman won at 11-under, and Jason Day won at 17-under.
Of course, another sign of the Orlando, Fla., course’s difficulty is a look at the other end of the leaderboard. On Thursday, Kevin Na signed for an 81, and Seamus Power an 80. On Friday, seven players were 80 or worse. And remember, too, that players will hit to weekend pins on Saturday and Sunday.
Arnold Palmer, the tournament’s longtime host and one of the game’s legends, enjoyed being hospitable, but he didn’t serve a cupcake.
The rough is up by the greens, too
Not everything this weekend may be as fiendish as it could be. Gone this year at Bay Hill are sloping run-off areas around the greens, which had generally stunted players from firing at tight pins, and in their place is thick rough. Miss now, and the chip back is shorter, albeit it in cabbage.
Players who have been asked by reporters this week have been mostly split on the move, sometimes even between player and caddie.
“That’s a debate that my caddie, Fooch (Mark Fulcher), and I have been having all week,” Billy Horschel said on Thursday. “He’s been thinking the lack of runoffs is going to make it play easier. I haven’t sort of been on that theory. I think it is going to make it play maybe a little bit tougher. So we’ve got a little side bet on a few holes where the runoff is no longer on what the score may be for certain pin locations.
“It’s weird because I’m so used to seeing the runoffs, and I’m so comfortable with those runoffs that it’s actually some holes are nicer that they’re not there. So if the ball does release too much or you’re in the rough, there’s a buffer that the ball is only going to be a couple yards off instead of running all the way down.”
So who survives?
Hovland will start Saturday at nine-under and two strokes ahead of Hatton, Gooch and McIlroy, and three in front of Horschel. After that, seven golfers are six back, and three are seven back. So there’s a gap between the top and the middle.
Who survives? Perhaps the answer comes from the player who won an incredible eight times at Bay Hill. The king of the King’s place, if you will.
“I don’t think you can ever really love really, really tough golf,” McDowell said. “It’s like a U.S. Open setup, for example. When you’re having to play away from flags, there’s a certain frustration to that, but there’s also a certain amount of discipline required to do that.
“That’s what made Tiger great. That’s why Tiger won so many times around here because, A, he’s really, really good; B, you have to be super efficient with what you’re doing. You have to ignore pin positions and stay away from trouble. So I think that appeals to that type of player.”