Rafa Cabrera Bello and his caddie line up a putt on the 17th hole during the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Photo: Reinhold Matay/USA TODAY Sports

ORLANDO, Florida – Rafa Cabrera Bello proved a quick learner in his first appearance at Bay Hill, taking the first-round lead with a seven-under-par 65 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida on Thursday.

The Spaniard avoided trouble on the many water-lined holes to head American Keegan Bradley by two strokes, while 1997 champion Phil Mickelson was among a group three off the pace in Orlando.

Mickelson’s round of 68 included a double-bogey at the par-four 10th, where ‘Lefty’ tried rather ambitiously to hit a right-handed recovery shot, only for his ball to get caught up in a mesh fence.

Justin Rose shot 71, one better than defending champion Rory McIlroy, whose birdie putt at the last cruelly lipped out of the hole.

Ninety-four balls ended in the water, the most in any round at Bay Hill since 2003, but Cabrera Bello steered clear of trouble and was four-under after six holes.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” he told reporters.

“To be fair, I’ve been playing good this year. I got off to a nice early hot start, hung in there, didn’t give myself much chances of trouble.

“A couple of lucky breaks, a couple of good putts, and when I look at the leaderboard, seven-under looks nice.”

The highlight of Cabrera Bello’s round was a near ace at the 215-yard second hole – his 11th – where his three-iron landed on the front of the green and curled deliciously with the slope towards the hole, before stopping just short.

“I had come off a bogey at one, so wasn’t really happy on the (second) tee,” he said.

“I hit it exactly how I wanted. I knew it was a good shot... and then I looked up and see it a foot away.”

World number 34 Cabrera Bello, a three-time winner on the European Tour, is seeking his first victory on the PGA Tour.

World number two Rose was not too displeased with his performance in his first round after a month off.

“Bay Hill played quite tricky this morning, quite cool starting out and just enough breeze to make every shot challenging,” said the Englishman.

McIlroy also remained positive.

“I’m three shots off the top 10. If tomorrow I shoot something in the 60s, I’ll be right there for the weekend,” said the Northern Irishman, who has not finished outside the top five all year.

Former world number one Jason Day called it quits after hitting his second shot into water at the par-five 16th, his seventh, and said that an MRI on Monday had revealed a disc tear.

Leading Scores

65: Rafa Cabrera Bello

67: Keegan Bradley

68: Graeme McDowell, Patrick Rodgers, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson, Billy Horschel

69: Francesco Molinari, Jhonattan Vegas, Kang Sung-hoon, Pat Perez, Tommy Fleetwood, Scott Stallings

Reuters