Morgan Hoffman (66) an unlikely leader at Bay Hill

Morgan Hoffman, ranked No. 137, has a one-shot lead after the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Of all the names clumped near the top of the leaderboard in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Morgan Hoffman might have been the least likely to be on top Thursday.

He is ranked No. 137 in the world. He missed the cut last week. Basically, if he'd stood on a beach with a five-iron, he'd have had trouble hitting the ball into the ocean.

"It's been pretty frustrating," Hoffman said.

All that almost magically melted away Thursday as he shot a six-under-par 66 in the opening round at Bay Hill. That gave the 25-year-old a one-shot lead over five golfers. Eleven others shot 68, so quite a posse will be trying to chase down Hoffman on Friday.

Included in that horde are Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Keegan Bradley, Ian Poulter, Billy Horschel and defending champion Matt Every. They took advantage of calm conditions and a Bay Hill course that didn't flash its usual fangs.

"I think it's playing a little more gettable," said Horschel, last year's FedExCup champion. "The rough doesn't seem nearly as long. I just think it's a softer golf course and not nearly as penalizing as in years past."

Perhaps that is just what Hoffman needed to snap out of his early-season funk.

"My stats this year have been pretty terrible from the fairway to greens in regulation," he said.

After missing the cut at the Valspar Championship, Hoffman spent last weekend on a practice range near his home in Jupiter, Fla. He said he pounded golf balls from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. He didn't even take a break for lunch.

That wasn't surprising considering Hoffman prepares his own meals and takes them with him on the course. Thursday's menu featured a buffalo steak and steamed broccoli, which he wolfed down between holes.

The only utensils Hoffman needed Thursday were his irons. The nine-iron he hit on the ninth hole almost went into the hole from 154 yards away.

Hoffman also knocked in a sand shot for an eagle on No. 16. He said he actually mis-hit the shot, and if the ball hadn't hit the pin it would have rolled at least 10 feet past.

Having the first-round lead rarely leads to victory at Bay Hill. Scott shot a 62 last year and had a seven-shot lead after two rounds.

He wobbled in with a 76 on Sunday to finish two shots behind Every. Was that the motivation behind Thursday's 68?

"To be honest, I wasn't thinking about last year," Scott said.

Not that Hoffman needed such a cautionary tale to keep from being overconfident. The New Jersey native's best finish ever is a third place at last year's BMW Championship.

He played Thursday after learning of death of his 97-year-old grandmother. And he wasn't the only distracted golfer. Poulter's young son Joshua came down with pneumonia Wednesday night.

After a trip to the hospital, Poulter and his wife, Katie, brought their son home. He climbed into bed with his father at about 12:30 a.m.

"I'm dozing off," Poulter said. "You just want to make sure he's OK."

Joshua was better Thursday morning. So his father went to work, and his day was highlighted by an eagle on No. 16.

"Always very helpful to the scorecard," Poulter said. "All in all, five under par is a nice start to this tournament."

Rory McIlroy's start wasn't quite as nice. The world's No. 1 player finished with a 70.

"Lot of positives," McIlroy said of his round. "I'm just trying to clean up a few areas that I didn't do so well today, and it could be a really good week."

dwhitley@tribpub.com

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