ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Morgan Hoffmann was in the lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, marking the first time that has happened after any round in his 67 starts on the PGA Tour.
No better time than on a day of strange doings at Bay Hill.
Rory McIlroy was making his debut at Arnie’s place, and the only time he missed a green Thursday was when his shot went into the water on the 16th hole. He spun his club in his hands when he saw the splash, but unlike Doral two weeks ago, the club didn’t follow the ball into the water.
Brandt Snedeker thought he was in the water twice on one shot. His approach to the 18th hole came up short and bounced high off the rocks. And then he bounced off the rocks again. The last carom sent it forward onto the green about 5 feet away, and Snedeker took a bow.
And then he missed the putt.
Kevin Kisner was one of 31 players who broke 70 on a soft opening round. He has never played Bay Hill, and he sure didn’t think this would be the year.
Kisner was the sixth alternate on Wednesday when Masters champion Bubba Watson withdrew because of the unexpected death of a friend. Five others ahead of Kisner on the list had already left. Kisner got on a single-engine plane belonging to a buddy and made it to Orlando about eight hours before his tee time.
He played with Adam Scott and Brooks Koepka and shot a 69.
Ian Poulter had a late start, and that was a good thing. His 3-year-old son was taken to the hospital with low levels of oxygen, quite a scare. It turned out to be pneumonia, and Poulter felt better about his condition Thursday morning. He shot 67 and was one shot behind.
And then it began to rain about an hour after the round ended.
Of all that happened, nothing was more unusual than Hoffmann in the lead after a 6-under 66. He talked about the weird mental state he was in before revealing the cause. He received news before teeing off that his 97-year-old grandmother had died in Fort Lauderdale.
“Just wish my family the best at home,” Hoffman said. “My whole family texted me and said, ‘Nanny is playing golf with pop up there,’ which was pretty cool.”
Hoffmann hopes to attend a memorial service for Dorothy Lionetti in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday night. It should be a short trip considering Hoffmann pilots his own plane that he recently bought from his buddy David Booth, who plays left wing for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Not to be forgotten was his golf.
Hoffman began his round with a 35-foot birdie putt on No. 10 and finished it with a 9-iron that touched the hole before stopping inches away for birdie. He also holed a bunker shot for eagle on the par-5 sixth. That gave him a one-shot lead over five players, including Poulter.
The group at 68 included Snedeker, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson and Harris English.
The good news for McIlroy was his 17 greens in regulation. The bad news is that he one-putted only two greens, including a 15-foot birdie on the 18th for a 70. McIlroy two-putted from 18 feet for birdie on No. 6, and his lone bogey came with an approach into the water on the par-5 16th.
In his third American event this year, the world’s No. 1 player still hasn’t broken 70. But he’s getting there.
“Seeing signs of my game that I like,” McIlroy said. “Another three days of hopefully solid golf and try and get into contention, and that will put me in a good place going into Augusta.”
Hoffmann also is headed to Augusta National for the first time, courtesy of making the Tour Championship last year on the strength of a pair of top 10s in the FedEx Cup playoffs. He just hasn’t followed up on his finish at the start of this season, with no top 10s in nine tournaments.
But after missing the cut at Innisbrook, he spent 12 hours at home in South Florida hitting balls and trying to hit cut shots to stop the aggravating two-way miss. The work appears to be paying off. He missed only two fairways and four greens, none by a lot.
Twelve hours on the range can be exhausting, and when asked if he had at least stopped for lunch, Hoffmann shared his culinary preferences.
He cooks the night before and packs six small meals to eat during the day. The only thing missing is the cutlery, even for Thursday’s meal, which was steamed broccoli and a bison steak. “Barehanded it,” he said.
“I just figure it’s better than eating candy bars or protein bars,” he said. “I have real food out there.”
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