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Rory McIlroy falls back after strong start as Tiger surges ahead

Major goal: Rory McIlroy is aiming to find form ahead of The Masters
Major goal: Rory McIlroy is aiming to find form ahead of The Masters

After a strong opening, Rory McIlroy slipped down the field during his outing at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Rory McIlroy looked set to challenge for the lead when he played his first 10 holes in five under, but a string of pars was followed by a drive out of bounds on the 18th.

The resulting double bogey left McIlroy alongside Tommy Fleetwood, Graeme McDowell and Justin Rose on three under, Rose having recovered from being four over par after six holes with seven birdies in the next 10.

This came as Tiger Woods attempted to keep a lid on soaring expectations after making an impressive start to the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Woods is seeking a record ninth victory at Bay Hill in just his fifth PGA Tour event since undergoing spinal fusion surgery in April 2017, his fourth back operation in the space of three years.

The 42-year-old finished second to England’s Paul Casey in the Valspar Championship on Sunday and carried on where he left off in Orlando with an opening 68 to lie four shots behind clubhouse leader Henrik Stenson.

That performance saw some bookmakers install the 14-time major winner as a joint-favourite for the upcoming Masters alongside world number one Dustin Johnson, but Woods was keen to avoid getting carried away with the hype.

“You guys are asking different questions than you did when I first came back and that wasn’t that long ago, that’s two months ago,” Woods said after his round in quotes reported by ESPN.

“The narrative has completely flipped and I just wanted to remind you guys that it wasn’t that long ago that you were asking a different set of questions and that you need to enjoy it. I enjoy just playing again after what I’ve been through. Playing feels good.”

After starting from the 10th, Woods birdied the 12th, 13th and 16th to reach the turn in 33, but looked to have undone most of his good work with a wild tee shot out of bounds on the third hole which led to a double-bogey six.

Woods quickly bounced back with birdies on the fourth and sixth, both par fives, and followed a poor tee shot on the par-three seventh by holing from 70 feet for another unlikely gain.

“It was coming over that hill a little too quick,” Woods admitted on Sky Sports. “I was just trying to lag it down there, just make my par and get outta here and it had a crash at the hole, which I’m not complaining about, and it went in.”

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