ORLANDO – For Tyrrell Hatton, a little down time has gone a long way. The 28-year-old Englishman was sidelined for three months, from mid-November until late February after undergoing surgery on his right wrist.
“To be honest,” he said, “it was probably nice to have an escape from playing golf.”
And what did he do during his downtime, which he called the longest stretch of time at home for the last eight years?
“I drank a lot of red wine and played Xbox,” he said. “That was it. When the cast came off and I was told I could play Xbox, I was, I didn’t hesitate.”
Turns out Hatton has developed quite a taste for Napa cabernets. He’s also come back with a vengeance, finishing T-6 at the WGC Mexico Championship in his first start of the year and sharing the 36-hole lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational with South Korea’s Sung Kang.
Like Tommy Fleetwood a week ago, Hatton has tasted victory on the European Tour – four times in all, including a couple of Rolex Series events – but has yet to reach the winner’s circle on the PGA Tour, which he termed “the next step in my career.”
“When you look back at the end of your career you would like to win on both tours, obviously, you would love to win WGC’s and majors,” he said. “That’s the goal for everyone and I’m no different from that.”
Hatton took advantage of the par 5s at Bay Hill Golf & Lodge on Friday, carding three birdies on the four holes, and stiffed his tee shot at the par-3 17th to put another circle on the card. He took three putts from 41 feet at 13 for bogey and dropped another shot at the par-4 third, but rolled in a 13-foot birdie at No. 8 to shoot 69 for a 36-hole total of 7-under 137.
He credited his putter for bailing him out of several jams on Friday. Two days ago, he discovered that his short stick was a degree and a half too flat, and he had it adjusted and played nine holes at nearby Lake Nona Golf and Country Club to test it out. So far, so good.
Kang was up to the challenge of a difficult north wind and cooler temperatures on Friday. He was even par – two birdies, two bogeys – for his first 11 holes before he poured in a 63-foot birdie putt at 12 and followed it up with a short birdie at 13. He added an 11-foot birdie putt at 16 and a 6-footer at 18 to shoot 68. Kang, who the AT&T Byron Nelson last year, began working with veteran caddie Damon Green and shared a colorful story of how the partnership has helped his game flourish.
“I was hitting it really good at Riviera (at Genesis Invitational), but I was a little too confident sometimes. I’m going at it too much,” he explained. “So, Damon just tells me, ‘Oh, you suck, you can’t do it; just hit it there.’ ”
Green’s willingness to give his opinion has helped Kang play smarter and avoid being too aggressive. But Kang says the smack talk goes both ways.
“I have high expectations of him, so sometimes we’re right in between and then I listen to him and it’s just no good and I got mad and I couldn’t control it,” Kang said. “I just tell him, ‘Hey, you suck too; just get out of the way. I’ll just do my own thing.’ So that’s been working great.”
Indeed, it has. Hatton and Kang are one stroke in front of Danny Lee, who took just 22 putts en route to shooting the day’s low round, a 5-under 67.
Rory McIlroy rebounded from two bogeys and a double bogey in his first eight holes to shoot 1-over 73 and is tied for fourth with Honda Classic champion Sungjae Im, who fired a 69, and Harris English, who posted 70.
“It was a grind,” McIlroy said. “I think I made it more of a grind than I needed to.”
So, did first-round leader Matt Every, who pin-balled from an 85 in the second round of the Honda Classic last week to a 65 on Thursday and back to the 80s on Friday. His 11-over 83 at the course where he won his only two titles sent him home for the weekend. Others to miss the cut, which came at 3-over 147, included Phil Mickelson (77-72), Henrik Stenson (77-72), Adam Scott (77-72), Tony Finau (75-74), Justin Rose (73-77), and Tommy Fleetwood (76-76), who saw his Tour-leading cut streak end at 33.
Bay Hill is setting up for another challenging test this weekend, where good shots will be rewarded, but failure to execute is punished severely.
“I think this is exactly the type of test that Arnold would have liked to see at his golf tournament,” McIlroy said. “The weather’s cooperated. It’s been sort of cool and breezy. The greens have dried out. But the course is in phenomenal shape. If you play well there are scores out there. But if you do get out of position you’re going to struggle like I did today at times.”