‘It’s like crazy golf:’ Rory McIlroy lashes out at setup at Bay Hill
One 76 couldn’t do it. A second one did.
After struggling to the four-over round on Saturday, after entering the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational two shots out of the lead, Rory McIlroy held back on his thoughts on the conditions at Bay Hill, where the grass in the rough was high, the grass on the greens was not and the wind was all over the place. “I don’t want to say anything that I’m going to regret, but it’s — I guess, the last few years, we sort of know what to expect coming here.”
Then McIlroy shot a second-straight 76, finished six shots behind winner Scottie Scheffler, and, well …
“I feel punch drunk, to be honest,” McIlroy said. “The weekend, it’s like crazy golf. You just don’t get rewarded for good shots. Like I’m venting here and I’m frustrated and whatever. I think as well the frustration is it’s a carbon copy of what’s happened the last three years here. I started off really, really well with a 66 or 65. Friday afternoon conditions got a little tougher. Then over the weekend, it’s sort of been the same stuff.
“So three years in a row it’s sort of been start off, lead the golf tournament, then you just sort of regress and come back to the field each and every day. Yeah, it’s frustrating. It’s hard to keep your patience out there.”
He’s right about the regression. On Thursday, McIlroy shot a seven-under 65 and jumped to a two-shot lead after 18 holes — then shot 72 and the back-to-back 76s. In 2021, McIlroy opened with a 66, only to go 71, 72, 76; and in 2020, he went 66, 73, 76, 76. (In 2019, he improved over the first three rounds and fell back on Sunday — 72, 70, 66, 72.)
The culprit this year? For one, even on a Chamber of Commerce day, Bay Hill is a beast; longtime host and golf legend Arnold Palmer wanted a challenge and got one. Tight fairways. Risk-reward on the par-5 6th. A tough closing stretch. And usually the wind is an issue, though it picked up each round this week.
But throughout the week, as players talked to reporters afterward, three themes emerged — the rough was higher than normal in the fairways; the greens, at a minimum, were at least as fast as they’ve ever been; and it only got worse as the week wore on. The result? Frustration. If you missed the fairway, you were likely dead — if you could hack out, your effort would slide off the green.
The scores showed as much. On Thursday, players averaged 72.292, then it went 74.342, 74.065 and finally — mercifully? — 75.481. Entering the final round, Billy Horschel and Talor Gooch were tied for the lead; on Sunday, Horschel shot 75, Gooch a 77. In all on Sunday, more players shot 80 or higher (six) than did break par (four).
“Sort of the way the conditions are, it makes you feel as if you’re not playing as good as you are,” McIlroy said. “Like I’m playing good. I’m hitting good shots. I’m swinging the club well. I’m chipping well. I’m putting well. But it can knock your confidence whenever the conditions are like this.
“I’m certainly playing better than shooting eight-over over the weekend. It’s just a matter of trying to regroup and forget about this week.”
Gary Woodland, who led after 70 holes, only to go double bogey-bogey and finish tied for fifth, said as much, too.
“This is as hard as I’ve seen in a long time,” he said. “Conditions were brutal. The golf course is hard enough, and then you throw out the firm greens and the wind and not much grass, ball is oscillating a little bit, it’s as tough maybe since Winged Foot, I would say. It was tough.”
So what’s the fix? McIlroy went back to the setup.
“Maybe just trying to make it a little less penal when you miss, I guess,” he said. “Or not even less penal when you miss. I don’t mind golf courses being penal when you miss, but it’s not rewarding good shots. I think that’s where it starts to get across the line.”
A reporter then asked McIlroy if players “would think twice whether to play if it stays like this.”
“Yeah, they need to do something about it,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys that sort of stay away this week to get ready for next week (the Players Championship). Next week’s become such a big event, $20 million purse. The four majors are sacred in this game, but it’s very close to being among them with the way it’s going.
“As I said, I just need a day off tomorrow to forget about what’s happened this week and then just sort of focus on next week.”