World No 1 Jon Rahm started fast and finished strong on the way to a seven-under-par 65 on Thursday and a two-stroke lead in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Rahm, playing the tournament at Bay Hill in Orlando, Florida, for just the second time, launched his round with three straight birdies and closed it by picking up four strokes in his last three holes with an eagle and two birdies.
Rahm, who regained the world No 1 ranking with his third PGA Tour title of 2023 at Riviera last month, was two shots clear of Americans Chris Kirk, Cameron Young and Kurt Kitayama.
“I took advantage of the good swings,” Rahm said. “I put myself in a really good spot on one off the tee. Took advantage with a wedge in my hand.
“I can say the two shots on two and 17, to have a combined six feet in those two holes, it just doesn’t happen. I hit two really good shots and landed in a very precise spot.”
Rahm, who launched his finishing fireworks by rolling in a 24-foot eagle putt from the fringe at 16, said he didn’t feel “shaky” in between his opening and closing bursts.
He bogeyed the 8th and birdied 12, and was pleased with par-saving putts at the 10th and 15th.
“I felt like I played a pretty good round of golf, it’s just not easy,” he said. “Those fairways are getting firm and they’re not easy to hit. When you miss the fairway you’re going to be chopping it out of the rough and hoping for dear life.”
Kirk is coming off his first victory in almost eight years at the Honda Classic on Sunday.
It was his fifth PGA Tour title but his first since he took a break from the Tour in 2019 to deal with depression and alcohol misuse.
“So 5:30 came early this morning and felt strange a little bit, like, ‘OK, we’re really doing this all over again,'” Kirk said.
Kirk’s round included a pair of 30-foot birdie putts, at the 11th and second holes. He had seven birdies in all, giving a stroke back at the ninth, his last of the day, which played as the hardest hole on the course.
Young, last season’s Rookie of the Year who also made bogey there, said there was no secret to the trouble caused by the 9th.
“It’s 500 yards into the wind with the narrow fairway and four and a half inch rough,” said Young, whose five-under effort included a chip-in for eagle at the 12th along with five birdies and a pair of bogeys.
“It’s just a really hard hole,” he added saying the par-four was “just basically a par-five.”
Kitayama was bogey-free with six birdies through 16 holes, but he bogeyed the ninth to fall back into the group at five under.
World No 2 Scottie Scheffler, who has a chance to regain the top spot from Rahm this week, headed a group of eight players on 68 that also included Jordan Spieth and Patrick Cantlay.
Rory McIlroy, the 2018 champion at Bay Hill who could also return to No 1 this week, opened with a one-over par 73 that included a double-bogey at the par-five 6th, where he was in the water off the tee.
The three South Africans in the field, Garrick Higgo, Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Thriston Lawrence, shot 72, 73 and 76 respectively.
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