By Dave Shedloski
Any golfer knows he seldom is able to put together all of the pieces of his game, but good things inevitably happen when he does.
Just ask J.B. Holmes, whose game, as his initials might suggest, was Just Brilliant Thursday in the opening round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard. The long-hitting Kentuckian combined power with precision and putting to post a bogey-free 6-under-par 66 and grab a share of the lead with Davis Love III.
“I’ve just been hitting the ball so bad … and this was really, one of the few rounds I actually hit the ball well all day with the driver and the irons. Maybe the only round this year,” said Holmes, 27, a two-time PGA TOUR winner who has the first-round lead for the first time in his career. “So [I need to] just continue to putt like I have; if I start hitting the ball like I know I can, I can definitely start putting up some good numbers.”
Love, three times a runner-up at Bay Hill, endured a more heart-thumping round. He chipped in twice, once for birdie, once for eagle, on the second and fourth holes, respectively, as part of a five-hole stretch that he played 6 under par. He also made an 18-foot birdie from just off the green at the fifth as he recorded just 10 official putts on the outward nine -- and 24 overall.
His finish included a 43-foot birdie at the par-3 17th and a par save from eight feet at the closing hole after he missed the green long and had to negotiate a slick downhill chip.
“Yeah, it was entertaining,” Love, 45, said with a grin. “I don't know if you've seen Daniel Chopra do a scorecard but he's got one of those pens with four different colors and I had all kind of colors all over my scorecard. It was very pretty. You know, could have gone a lot of different ways. I made, like I said a couple chip‑ins and a long putt on 17, or if I had not buried it in the bunkers a couple of times and gotten another funky lie in the bunker, I would have been even better.”
Good numbers were common around the breezy Championship Course at Palmer’s revamped Bay Hill Club & Lodge that is receiving rave reviews from the players.
On the heels of the two Americans were Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and Canada’s Mike Weir, a former Masters champion, at 5-under 67. Stenson, the reigning Players champion, also got to 6 under par before bogeying his penultimate hole.
The group at 4-under 68 included Australia’s Robert Allenby, who double-bogeyed the 18th after grabbing a share of the lead, and Ernie Els, the 1998 champion here at Bay Hill, who picked up where he left off two weeks ago when he won the CA Championship.
“It’s disappointing to finish with a double bogey, but 4 under is still a good score around here,” Allenby said. “I’ve been playing well for a couple of months now, so I’m not too discouraged at all. I hit one bad shot. There’s always tomorrow.”
The group at 69 included Steve Stricker, No. 2 on the World Ranking and the FedExCup points leader. World No. 3 Phil Mickelson carded a 71. In all 47 players broke par.
Holmes came into the week ranked 189th in driving accuracy and 143rd in greens in regulation, but he surpassed those statistical benchmarks with ease Thursday, hitting 10 of 14 fairways and missing just one green. The result was his career best round in 17 tours of the Championship Course at Bay Hill and just his third sub-70 score.
It’s the kind of start a player trying to earn a Masters berth needs. Holmes is ranked 58th in the world; the top 50 at the end of the week not otherwise eligible get an invitation to Augusta National Golf Club.
Holmes began the year ranked 132nd in the world, but has moved up steadily with a second and third-place finish on the West Coast. He credits former PGA Champion Dave Stockton with helping him sharpen his putting at the start of the year.
“Now I feel like I can score when I get on the greens, and I feel like I don’t have to hit the ball 2 feet to make birdie. I’m more surprised now it’s not going in, even on 30-footers,” Holmes said. “I feel great with the putter in my hand. I feel more confident.”