ORLANDO, Florida: Jon Rahm started his round strong and ended it even better Thursday, closing eagle-birdie-birdie for a 7-under 65 and a two-shot lead in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Not even the brute test of Bay Hill was a match for golf’s hottest player.
“Amazing round of golf,” he said. “I wish all of them were as enjoyable as this one.”
That doesn’t mean it was perfection by any means. Rahm, playing in the afternoon when the greens became a bit more crusty, opened with three straight birdies. He held steady the rest of the way until his big burst at the end allowed him to zoom past Honda Classic winner Chris Kirk and Cameron Young.
He hit only eight fairways. He twice was blocked by trees, one time escaping with par with a 30-foot putt on the 15th hole.
But oh, that finish.
Rahm hit 5-iron to 25 feet on the fringe at the par-5 16th and holed it for eagle. On the par-3 17th, he hammered a 7-iron that cleared the bunker and landed in just the right spot to roll out to 2 feet. And on the closing hole, he hit a soft 9-iron to a front pin that settled about 6 feet away.
Rahm had said earlier in the week he doesn’t think he can be beat when he is firing on all cylinders, a belief by most top players. He also said he couldn’t think of a tournament where he played his absolute best.
“Go through the round and you’ll see plenty of mistakes,” Rahm said. “I just took advantage of minimizing mistakes and converted a couple of situations into really good scores. But it can always be better.
“But it’s the first day,” he added. “Ask me that on Sunday if I keep playing like this, and I’ll probably change my answer.”
Bay Hill is bracing for the worst over the next few days, with the wind expected to be strong on a course that already is fast and firm.
Kirk is coming off an emotional win nearly eight years in the making. He carried that momentum to seven birdies for a 67 during the morning round. Young also had a 67 in morning conditions that might be as easy as Bay Hill gets all week.
They were joined by Kurt Kitayama, who had a chance to challenge Rahm until dropping his lone shot on his final hole at No. 9.
The group at 68 included defending champion Scottie Scheffler, Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay, all among the top 20 in the world.
But it starts at the top, and Rahm looks as tough as ever. He already has three PGA Tour wins this year, and he has won five of his last nine tournaments worldwide.
Rory McIlroy, who has a mathematical chance to return to No. 1 in the world with a win, was over par from his opening hole and scratched out a 73, including a double bogey on the par-5 sixth hole when he drove into the water.
Kirk won the Honda Classic in a playoff just four days ago, a monumental win for the 37-year-old from Georgia who stepped away from the PGA Tour to seek help for alcoholism and depression.
It has been nonstop ever since — the Seminole Pro-Member on Monday, the drive north to Orlando and golf at Isleworth with longtime friend Charlie Culberson of the Tampa Bay Rays, the pro-am Wednesday and then one of the toughest tests on the Florida swing.
He was up to the task with a round that started and ended with a bogey and featured seven birdies in between.
“I’ve definitely been busy, and so 5:30 came early this morning and felt strange a little bit, like, ‘OK, we’re really doing this all over again.’ So felt a little bit out of in the very beginning, but then settled in and played some solid golf,” Kirk said.
It helped to hole a pair of 30-foot birdie putts, but otherwise he looked as though he didn’t want to wait another eight years for his next win.
Young is waiting for his first, and it’s hard to imagine this kind of talent waiting much longer. He had two close calls in the majors last year, including a 31 on the back nine of St. Andrews to finish one back at the British Open.
Young has a connection to Bay Hill. His father, David, recently retired as the longtime head pro at Sleepy Hollow in New York, and they occasionally spent weeks during the winter in Orlando at nearby Orange Tree. Young played Bay Hill every so often as a teenager.
“The golf course in tournament shape is a different animal when the rough gets like this and the green gets firms,” Young said.
That’s not to suggest he had his way with Bay Hill when it wasn’t set up for the PGA Tour.
“It’s not easy as it is,” he said. “And I wasn’t quite as good then.”
Bay Hill figures could be tough as ever if a strong wind arrives. Players were having a tough time finding pitch marks on the green during the Wednesday pro-am.
“We’ll see what happens on these greens,” Scheffler said. “It better not blow too hard or they may need to slow them down or something. I really don’t know what they’re going to do.”
For now, the bigger concern might be how to stop Rahm.