Ian Poulter had reason to have much more on his mind than simply making an excellent start at the Arnold Palmer Invitational when he arrived at Bay Hill on Thursday morning. Which makes the fact that he produced precisely that all the more praiseworthy.
Poulter’s three-year-old son, Joshua, was admitted to an Orlando hospital on Wednesday evening with dangerously low oxygen levels. He was soon diagnosed with pneumonia. Poulter Jnr was home and showing signs of improvement by the time his father left for work the next morning, but the stress attached to such a scenario cannot be underplayed, regardless of profile or profession.
In his father’s words, there had been a “big concern.” Poulter added: “He then had a full nebuliser, which made him pretty sick.”
Poulter’s role was to give the young lad something to smile about. A flawless opening round of 67, five under par, maintained the impressive start to the Englishman’s 2015 and left him just one stroke off the lead with 54 holes to play here. Given the backdrop, this has to be the finest performance Poulter has produced in some time.
“He was OK this morning, his oxygen was up again, which was good,” Poulter said. “So hopefully the IV and the drugs will start to kick in and he makes a speedy recovery. The late tee off time today was a blessing. I can come out, focus on my job and get back home and see how he is. It was good to see the improvement from midnight last night until this morning so he’s definitely on the mend.”
Two things were in Poulter’s favour. His wife, Katie, is a nurse. And this is the one tournament each year that he can easily commute to from home.
The bigger picture relates to a Poulter renaissance, triggered by an equipment change and return to full fitness after the injuries that blighted his 2014. After this event, the 39-year-old will take a fortnight’s break before the Masters; he probably wishes the first major of the season could come around even quicker.
“I am playing great,” he said. “This is a course I play very well. I’ve had quite a few top 25s, and a third place a couple of years ago. I know the good is really good and the mistakes have been costly over the last few weeks. If I eliminate the mistakes I’m definitely going to be in with a chance to win.”
Rory McIlroy’s recent and hastily-arranged work with his coach, Michael Bannon, looks to have paid immediate dividends. McIlroy hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation on Thursday en route to his 70, a run only broken by an errant shot into water on the par five 16th. Had he made it 18 from 18, the 25-year-old would have been the first player to achieve such a feat on this course during tournament play since 1995.
McIlroy was frustrated that he took 34 putts but even that is hardly a cause for deep-rooted concern. The Bay Hill greens are in a poor state and will be ripped up and replaced in the aftermath of this tournament. Putting brilliantly on these surfaces from the outset would be something of an oddity.
“I was hitting a lot of shots I really liked and was turning the ball over a lot easier,” McIlroy said. “So there’s a lot of the game that’s right there. I’m pleased that there are a lot of positives. I’m just trying to clean up a few areas that I didn’t do so well in today and it could be a really good week.”
After his round, McIlroy departed for a random doping test before an eagerly-anticipated dinner with Arnold Palmer. “I’m excited about it,” he said of the meal. “I’ve been looking forward to it for a few weeks, from the moment I knew I was going to be able to spend a little bit of time in his company.”
Morgan Hoffman, from New Jersey, who is in his sixth year on the PGA Tour, claimed the first round lead at six under. He revealed he will compete this weekend in tribute to his grandmother, who died at the age of 97 on Thursday morning.
Padraig Harrington, Henrik Stenson and Adam Scott were among a group of 11 players to open with a 68.
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