Jason Day has charged back to form, heading the Arnold Palmer Invitational field after a spectacular back-nine 31 at Bay Hill today.
The world No.3 had made a slow start to his season after taking three months off around the birth of his second child Lucy, then becoming sick before his ill-fated title defence at Torrey Pines.
But with the scent of Augusta National now firmly in the Queenslander’s nostrils, he poured in three birdies in four holes from the 12th, then rifled a six-iron to 3m for an eagle on the par-five 16th to charge to a six-under-par 66.
And in even better news for the Australian contingent, two of Day’s nearest rivals are the white-hot Adam Scott and Marc Leishman, both among a group of five at five under.
Matt Jones signed for a 70 to sit T27, while Ryan Ruffels in just his third US PGA Tour start as a pro, made three bogeys in the closing four holes to finish even par and T68 after sitting at three under through 14.
The only rough patch for the Aussies was the form of Aaron Baddeley, who couldn’t find a birdie in his opening 76 that left him T111, but just one shot behind world No.2 Rory McIlroy.
Day, who said recently he had no fears for the year ahead as he shook off the rust of his winter break, appeared early in his round to have regained his birdie-making magic, including a bomb on the par-four eighth hole to have him at three under despite a bogey on the second.
But a penalty after a wayward drive left on the ninth preceded a double-bogey six that threatened to derail the round.
An up-and-down from the greenside trap on the par-five 12th kickstarted his round again, though, and when he made a spectacular approach from the right rough, then cashed in with birdie from 6m on the 15th, the form that took him to world No.1 last year was becoming evident.
Then came his sensational approach over water to the 17th hole and the resultant eagle leapfrogged him clear of the field, primarily through his putting with which he gained 2.905 shots on the field average for the round in putting nine threes on his card.
“At Doral (two weeks ago in the WGC event), the last two rounds I was just starting to see the shots I wanted to hit and they were coming out … somewhwere close to what I wanted and that’s starting to pour over into this tournament,” Day enthused.
“(But) hitting out of bounds on nine was a big surprise because I’d been driving the ball well … and that one came out of the blue and can derail you at times.
“So I wanted to make sure that once I got to 10 I refocused and got back into the swing of things.
“The way I played on the back side was nice and I played the par fives fantastic at five under, then two great up-and-downs on 17 and 18.
“But it’s first round and I’ve got to make sure I’m patient. It’s easy to get (too) aggressive out here and it’s early days.”
Scott, seeking his third successive title on the PGA Tour after wins at Doral and the PGA National, began on the back nine, and kickstarted his run with a superb 7-iron to 2m for eagle on the 16th.
From there he played steady, rather than spectacular, golf without a bogey to keep up his imperious form.
Leishman, another with a firm eye on the Masters, was also bogey-free in his quality 67.