Shane Lowry shows good form is more valuable than a bad track record at Bay Hill

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Shane Lowry knew he was playing good golf because he gave himself a chance to win last week. He also knew his record at Bay Hill was as bad as any course he has played.

Good form won out Thursday in the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Lowry made three birdie putts from outside 20 feet, chipped in for eagle and avoided most of the trouble for a 6-under 66, giving him a one-shot lead after the opening round.

How bad is Lowry around this track?

“Horrific,” the Irishman said with a laugh, and the numbers bear that out.

In his sixth time playing the tournament, this was the first time Lowry broke 70. Last year was the first time he made the cut, and he might have fared better than his tie for 67th if not for an 80 in the third round.

Lowry had a share of the 54-hole lead last week at the Cognizant Classic until posting a 71 over two days in the rain-delayed tournament to finish four back.

He needed a sponsor exemption to get into this signature event with a 69-player field. As a British Open champion, all-around good bloke and ambassador for MasterCard (the presenting sponsor), that was the easy part.

Bay Hill was always the hard part. He just made it look easy for once.

“It's one of these places where some people love it. I’ve struggled with it over the years," he said. “It's a nice place to come, it’s obviously a great tournament, a huge tournament, and I’m very happy with that today. Maybe that’s the kind of score I need to shoot around here to just give myself the confidence to go out and play my game around here.”

Lowry wasn't the the only player with low expectations. Hideki Matsuyama, who shot 62 in the final round to win at Riviera three weeks ago, suddenly felt some back pain that caused him to pull out of the pro-am. He wasn't sure how it would go in the opening round.

The Japanese star wasn't expecting a double-hit with a chip shot on the 15th hole that led to bogey, but he atoned for that by chipping in for eagle on his way to a 67.

Justin Lower also had a 67 on a day of reasonable scoring, at least by Bay Hill standards. With greens that get firmer as the week goes on and thick rough, this is one of the tougher courses leading up to the Masters. There also has been enough rain to slightly soften greens, and no wind, unusual for Florida in March.

Russell Henley and Sam Burns were in the group at 68, while Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and British Open champion Brian Harman were among those at 69.

Nineteen players broke 70, and the average score was 71.5. Scottie Scheffler, the world’s No. 1 player, had a 70 while missing only three greens.

Spieth, as usual, didn't deliver a stock version of 69. There were those three straight bogeys to close out the front nine, two of them on three-putts. He was headed for four in a row until a nifty pitch over the edge of a bunker on the 10th to save par, followed by three birdies over his next four holes to get back in the mix.

And then he hit his tee shot on the par-5 16th into the houses and out-of-bounds. He finished with a 25-foot birdie putt.

“I think it was more solid than maybe the scorecard indicates,” Spieth said. “The mistakes that I made, I feel like I can clean up. And there weren't a whole lot of 'em.”

Defending champion Kurt Kitayama had to rally for a 78. Patrick Cantlay missed too many opportunities to overcome his mistakes in a round of 74, while Rory McIlroy had a 73 and then spent the twilight hours on the putting green with Brad Faxon.

As a player-hosted signature event, Bay Hill will have a 36-hole cut on Friday to the low 50 and ties and anyone within 10 shots of the lead. How Lowry fares will have a bearing on that.

Lowry has too much history here — the wrong kind — to think too far ahead.

“This is the type of place where you get on a run and it feels easy, but then you get on a run the other way and start making bogeys, it feels like you’re never going to make a par out here again,” he said. "It's normally one of the firmest golf courses we play, and I’m sure over the weekend it’s going to firm up and become really difficult.

“But 66 is a really good start.”

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