ORLANDO, Fla. – Rafa Cabrera Bello had a Bay Hill debut to remember with a 7-under 65 for a two-shot lead while playing with Arnold Palmer’s grandson.
The entertainment, as usual, came from Phil Mickelson.
Back at the Arnold Palmer Invitational for the first time in six years, Mickelson capped off a wild round by nearly holing his approach from the 18th fairway for his seventh birdie on a round that will be remembered more for the shot Lefty tried to play right-handed .
“It didn’t turn out the best,” Mickelson said after rallying for a 68.
Mickelson, who won at Bay Hill in 1997, was cruising along until his tee shot on the 10th hole went well to the left and settled under a mesh fence that was out-of-bounds, with just enough of the ball inside the stakes that he could try to play it.
Of course, he did.
Standing on the other side of the fence, his best play was to invert a 9-iron and try to smash it right-handed through the mesh netting.
“I was able to get clear – I thought – clean contact on it from a right-handed shot perspective,” he said. “I thought I hit it pretty good.”
He looked up toward the green and was surprised to see the ball a few feet in front of him. By hitting the mesh fence, it rolled up and snagged the ball, which eventually spit out of the fence and this time landed out-of-bounds.
The old rule would have meant hitting his next shot from the same spot under the fence. The new rule for a stroke-and-distance penalty allowed him to move it one club length away. Mickelson was able to get that one to the front of the green, and he two-putted from 30 feet to salvage a double bogey.
“That definitely helped,” Mickelson said. “I didn’t want to play that shot again.”
He didn’t think the first shot was all that difficult, but he at least rallied with three birdies that left him three shots out of the lead.
“I’ve made a lot of doubles in my day,” Mickelson said. “It’s one more, it doesn’t even hurt.”
Keegan Bradley played bogey-free for a 67 in the morning, as did Cabrera Bello. Mickelson was in the group at 68 along with Graeme McDowell, Bubba Watson, Patrick Rodgers and Billy Horschel.
British Open champion Francesco Molinari made one of two aces on the day – the other belonged to D.A. Points – and was among those at 69.
Defending champion Rory McIlroy opened with a 72.
Cabrera Bello opened with four birdies in six holes in the morning chill, and he put together another run of birdies on the front nine that included consecutive putts from the 30-foot range. The rest of the Spaniard’s putts were from 6 feet or closer.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” Cabrera Bello said. “I know how nice and tough the course is and I think it’s a course with many, many daunting shots. So I feel the more you play it, probably the better. So I wasn’t really having much high expectations as opposed to just getting out there and playing my golf.”
Saunders had a 73 and was along for the ride with Cabrera Bello, who capped off his round with a 10-foot par putt.
“Playing with Sam is always a pleasure, not because he’s the grandson of Arnie but because of how nice of a guy he is,” Cabrera Bello said. “Obviously, playing at Bay Hill with him I know how special this event is for all of us, I can only imagine how special it is for him.”
Cabrera Bello is No. 34 in the world, winless since the Scottish Open in 2017.
Canadians Roger Sloan and Adam Hadwin were five shots off the lead in a tie for 14th place while Corey Conners was six shots back.
McDowell was among the first tournament ambassadors after Palmer died as a longtime supporter at Bay Hill. This could be a big week for him in other ways. The British Open returns to Northern Ireland this summer for the first time since 1951, and Bay Hill for the first time is part of the Open Qualifying Series. The top three players not already exempt from the top 10 at Bay Hill will get into Royal Portrush.
“I only found that out on Tuesday, to be honest with you,” McDowell said. “But, listen, I’m focusing really on the big picture right now. I’m kind of the opinion that good golf will take care of the things that I want to take care of. And it’s hard enough going out there trying to get your golf ball around 18 holes here at this great golf course and just trying to stay in the moment.”
Justin Rose, who has a chance to return to No. 1 in the world this week, opened with a 71.
Jason Day, the last player to win at Bay Hill before Palmer died in 2016, withdrew after six holes because of a back injury. Day was coming off a three-week break.