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Rory McIlroy
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
Odds and Ends

Round 1 Takeaways: McIlroy out front at API

by Will Gray
Updated On: March 4, 2021, 9:33 pm ET

They're off and running at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and there's a familiar name out in front. Rory McIlroy, three years removed from his win at this event, grabbed the early lead with a morning 66. He was joined at 6 under a few hours later by Canadian Corey Conners, who made some incredible gains with his irons and capitalized accordingly.

Here are some notes and takeaways from the opening day on the ground at Bay Hill, plus some potential opportunities to extract some value ahead of Round 2:

Rory McIlroy just played his best round of 2021.

Those are his words, not mine. McIlroy was quick to note that he carded a 64 a few weeks ago in Abu Dhabi but he believes Thursday's 6-under 66 to be his most well-rounded product of the year. It included a run of five straight birdies from Nos. 2-6 and the Ulsterman particularly capitalized on the lengthy par-3s at Bay Hill: hitting 5-iron into each green, he made three birdies and a par including a 55-foot bomb on No. 2 to spark his birdie run.

McIlroy has finished T-6 or better here each of the last four years and he's well on pace to continue that streak. His opener ticked all the boxes: third in SG: Putting and SG: Approach, fifth in SG: Off the Tee. The full-field scoring average was 0.35 strokes harder during the early wave, when McIlroy played, so if those splits continue he might have an easier time in the late wave with an opportunity to take the lead on his own.

Updated odds to win (via PointsBet Sportsbook)

+275: Rory McIlroy

+450: Bryson DeChambeau

+1000: Viktor Hovland

+1200: Corey Conners, Matthew Fitzpatrick

+2000: Sungjae Im, Jason Kokrak

+2500: Paul Casey

+3300: Jordan Spieth

Corey Conners set a new standard for iron play.

Conners isn't exactly known for his approach play, ranking 42nd on Tour this season in SG: Approach, but he put on an absolute clinic Thursday in Orlando. The Canadian gained +5.55 shots against the field with his approach play, the most anyone has picked up on the field in any single round on Tour this season. It meant that an average day off the tee and a few made putts added up to a 6-under round that only McIlroy could match.

Frankly, there wasn't any indication that a round like this was on the horizon: Conners had missed the cut in his two previous trips to Bay Hill, and he missed the cut at Riviera in his most recent start. It's difficult to envision him maintaining those gains with the iron play over the next three rounds, so Conners could be a fade option in head-to-head plays for Friday.

Bryson DeChambeau could win (even if he won't drive the sixth green).

DeChambeau has toyed with media and fans all week with the notion that he might try to hit it across the lake on the par-5 sixth, a hole that measures 555 yards but includes a carry in the neighborhood of 350 yards from tee to green. He came up short in practice and then eschewed the option in the opening round, instead hitting a more conventional drive into the fairway and making a birdie.

DeChambeau finished second here in 2018 and T-4 last year, and he's again in the mix after a 5-under 67 despite not going full send on No. 6. In speaking with reporters, McIlroy noted the strong correlation between SG: Off-the-Tee gains and success at Bay Hill and admitted that, as a result, it shouldn't be a surprise that he and DeChambeau have already bubbled toward the top. DeChambeau trails by a shot and his odds have been trimmed from +1200 to +450 after one round, with only McIlroy (+275) ahead of him.

Several notables played their way out, including the defending champ.

Tyrrell Hatton thrived last year in tough conditions, and he received plenty of support this week while seeking a second straight title. But those chances evaporated before lunch Thursday, as the Englishman played his first 13 holes in 6 over and didn't make a birdie until his 15th hole of the day. It added up to a 5-over 77, all but ensuring that his title defense will end with a missed cut.

But Hatton wasn't the only player to struggle on a day when the full-field average was 73.33. Former champ Francesco Molinari shot a 6-over 78, while Sam Burns opened with a 77 in his first start since a near-miss at Riviera. That was only one shot worse than Rickie Fowler, who ranked 109th out of 123 players in proximity and stumbled to a 4-over 76 that indicated his recent slide likely won't turn around this week.

Round 2 Buy

Jordan Spieth. Spieth is making his Bay Hill debut but actually fared pretty well, shooting a 2-under 70. But that round could've been even better were it not for an ill-timed hook off the sixth tee, which amounted to a two-shot penalty and led to a bogey on one of the easiest holes on the course. He bounced back with a birdie on the next hole and remained in good spirits while speaking to reporters despite the late-round setback.

Spieth's renaissance appears to be well and truly on. The win might not come this week, but if you didn't grab a piece at +3000 pre-tournament he's potentially more viable now at +3300 heading into Round 2 after a solid opener. Spieth was eighth in SG: Putting, and if he continues to roll in putts the ball-striking should keep him in the mix if he can avoid any more foul balls at the exact wrong time. A three-ball price of +196 against DeChambeau and Justin Rose, who opened with a 1-under 71, also seems intriguing.

Round 2 Fade

Corey Conners. As mentioned above, the Canadian had an out-of-body experience with the irons that could prove difficult to replicate. Conners has won before on Tour and contended at the Masters in November, but playing from the front of the pack in an event like this could prove to be a tall task. The fact that an above average day on the greens is also well above his norm (118th in SG: Putting) is also troubling.

I'm not in a rush to bet Conners at +1200 to win. In fact, I think there's an opportunity to fade him in Friday's three-ball against Zach Johnson and C.T. Pan. Specifically, I'm eyeing Johnson (+174) while expecting both players to regress to the mean. Conners could struggle to maintain his torrid approach pace, while Johnson lost more than 3.5 strokes to the field with his approach play alone, shooting a 74. He ranked 120th in SG: Approach, 121st in Proximity and quite literally can't get much worse with the irons. I expect a bounce back from a veteran who's 38th this season in SG: Approach and will fight to the bitter end in an attempt to make the cut.

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Will Gray

Will Gray joined Golf Channel in 2007 and currently serves as a staff writer for GolfChannel.com. Gray has been covering fantasy golf since 2012 and is a regular contributor to the Golf Central blog and covers several PGA Tour events each year. He's also a regular contributor to several digital properties on GolfChannel.com, including Stat Man, On the Clock, Fantasy Central, Grill Room and the Monday Scramble podcast.