Ultimate tribute: Field put to test in Round 1 of Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard - Round One Rory McIlroy Chris Condon/PGA TOUR

Ultimate tribute: Field put to test in Round 1 of Arnold Palmer Invitational

PGA Tour

Ultimate tribute: Field put to test in Round 1 of Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitiational ORLANDO – From the signature umbrella logos spotted on players’ bags to a touching opening ceremony on the driving range, several days of pomp and circumstance kicked off the 2017 Arnold Palmer Invitational as soon as players began trickling onto the property.

The most fitting tribute began Thursday when a star-studded field was put to the test under challenging conditions during the first round at Palmer’s beloved Bay Hill Club & Lodge.

“It was more like British weather out there,” Emiliano Grillo said.

Grillo carded an impressive 67, which Matthew Fitzpatrick matched roughly five hours later. The two are tied for the lead at 5 under, one shot ahead of Paul Casey, Lucas Glover and Charley Hoffman.

Palmer would have approved of the fan-friendly afternoon pairings, with Rickie Fowler playing one group ahead of Rory McIlroy, Brandt Snedeker and Sam Saunders, Palmer’s grandson. It made for quite a sight scene at around 2:15 p.m. when the groups made their way through the par-5 sixth, with spectators packed in tight to catch a glimpse of the modern day superstars amid reminders of the icon who died last September.

The crowd groaned when Saunders, then 1 under and a fan-favorite around here for obvious reasons, put his second shot in the water on No. 6. They cheered loudly when his iron shot at the 199-yard, par-3 seventh looked like it might go in, and even louder when he sank his 10-foot birdie putt to get back in red numbers.

Saunders battled throughout the afternoon but made double bogey on No. 18 to finish 2 over, a respectable round given how difficult the course played at times and how much has gone on outside the ropes this week. It was impossible not to feel his grandfather’s presence, particularly when he saw Palmer’s golf cart on the 16th hole, his clubs strapped in back and the driver’s seat empty in tribute to “The King.”

“He’s everywhere. I see him, I feel him, you hear about him,” Saunders said. “I thought about all the years I’ve played and I just started thinking about him driving around in the cart and watching me, and just to see it sitting there empty, yeah, that’s hard.”

It can’t be easy, but a hectic regimen has helped keep Saunders’ focus primarily on his golf game.

“We’ve had so much going on and so many great things happening, it’s actually made it go by kind of quickly,” Saunders said. “It hasn’t been a lot of sitting around and feeling emotions, just because I’ve been so busy on top of trying to prepare for a golf tournament. I felt good coming into today and felt good out there most of the day.”

McIlroy also finished 2 over after an eventful back nine which included two birdies, three bogeys and one double bogey at the par-4 11th.

“Very disappointing,” McIlroy said. “I didn’t hit the ball really the way I wanted. … The course is playing pretty tough this year, but I feel like today, even though I didn’t play my best, I should have shot something under par.”

Things were especially tough on the morning group, which produced a host of big numbers, including an 83 from Patrick Rodgers and a 79 from Vijay Singh.

Wise spectators adjusted their wardrobes accordingly and arrived heavily bundled for the unusually chilly March morning in central Florida. Wise players adjusted their club selections in the cold, windy conditions which had a drastic impact on distance.

“(No. 17 is) playing about (210) yards,” said Stewart Cink, who shot an impressive 2-under 70 following his 8:35 a.m. tee time. “Last week at Tampa, I was hitting a 6-iron 210. But today I hit 3-iron on that hole and I still don’t think I could have got it hole high. I missed the green in the bunker. It’s a three-club difference when it’s that cold and that windy and you’ve got all these layers on.”

Grillo began 2 over with bogeys on No. 3 and the par-5 fourth before heating up. Grillo birdied four of the next five holes and played the back nine in three under. Fitzpatrick made five birdies in his bogey-free afternoon round under more pleasant conditions.

“The first four holes were really difficult keeping warm,” Grillo said. “I couldn’t feel my hands … if I had my hands out of my pockets for a minute or two I would be freezing. But I was able to keep it in the fairways mostly all day and I was able to make a few good putts on 9 and 17 that kept me going.”

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