Hitting bombs

Rory McIlroy smashes historic drive on a charging back nine of 30

March 09, 2024
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Rory McIlroy hits his tee shot on the third hole during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

David Cannon

ORLANDO — Rory McIlroy took a shortcut on the way to posting his lowest back-nine score at Bay Hill Club and putting himself in the mix in the Arnold Palmer Invitational. It was what he might call the "fargiven" kind of shortcuts, to steal one of his lines.

With one of the most prodigious tee shots in the tournament’s annals, McIlroy drove the green at the par-4 10th hole on Saturday afternoon, one of six birdies he made on an inward nine of 30 that gave him at least an outside chance for his second victory at Bay Hill and first on the PGA Tour since the 2023 Genesis Scottish Open. On a blustery day in central Florida, the No. 2 player in the world rallied from a desultory front nine to post a four-under 68 and completed 54 holes in five-under 211, moving up 24 places on the leaderboard.

There was more than a fair bit of anger applied to the tee shot at No. 10, which measures 401 yards—at least in the conventional sense. McIlroy cut the corner on the dogleg right hole, his ball traveling 365 yards, skirting between the flanking front bunkers and ending up in the front portion of the green, 65 feet from the back-right pin. Justin Lower and Tom Hoge were still on the green when McIlroy’s ball arrived.

It was the first time he had ever attempted to drive the green. The angle he had to take meant flying his ball over adjacent houses, an area that would be out of bounds had he not cleared it. But he did so easily.

For sheer audacity, perhaps only Bryson DeChambeau’s 370-yard poke across the large lake and near the green at the par-five sixth hole in 2021 was more impressive.

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“That sort of got me going a little bit,” said McIlroy, 34, who had played the outward nine in two-over 38 when he figured that he should have been “two or three under through seven. So, I felt like I was pretty wasteful those first few holes.”

There was no wasted motion at the 10th after two putts yielded his first birdie of the day. Playing alongside Jordan Spieth, McIlroy then saved par at 11 after finding the water left of the fairway thanks to a seven-footer. His putter, not his best friend so far this season, did most of the heavy lifting from there. Among his remaining birdies were conversions from 26 feet at the 13th from the fringe, a 30-footer, again from the fringe, at 17, and 20-footer to cap the day at 18.

“Obviously played those last few holes really nicely, and second day in a row where I've actually putted really, really nicely, which is good to see,” McIlroy said.

Yeah, but about that tee shot at 10. No, he had never given a thought to trying to drive it in his previous nine visits to Bay Hill.

“I wasn't as long as I am now,” he said of the decision. “I'm definitely a good few yards longer over the last couple of years than I have been in the past. I thought if I got it in one of the two front traps that would be a good leave to hit something up the green, but, yeah, I wasn't trying to hit it on the green, but it was nice to walk up and see it on there.

“I played the last 10 holes in six under,” McIlroy added, “so it was, yeah, sometimes you need to let it out, and not let it sort of just build up inside you, I guess.”

He let it out all right.