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ORLANDO — Scottie Scheffler has a theory why he struggled to win a tournament during his first two seasons on the PGA Tour.

“I needed to bring the same intensity to Thursday and Friday as I did to Saturday and Sunday,” Scheffler explained on Wednesday during his pre-tournament interview.

Ever since he figured that out, Scheffler has become a world-beater. He won four tournaments last season in a nine-week stretch, including the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March and the Masters in April. This week marks his second of four opportunities to defend a title and so far he’s 1-for-1, having repeated as champion at the WM Phoenix Open in February.

On Thursday, Scheffler brought the intensity to Bay Hill Club & Lodge and sprinkled six birdies and two bogeys on his card to shoot 4-under 68 in the opening round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. The 26-year-old Scheffler is a stroke behind the early pace set by last week’s Honda Classic champ, Chris Kirk, and the PGA Tour’s reigning Arnold Palmer Rookie of the Year, Cameron Young. But with high winds forecasted for Friday expected to make the course play more difficult, Scheffler is pleased with his start. As noted by stats guru Justin Ray, in the last 15 years, only two other defending champions here started the tournament with 68 or better – Tiger Woods in 2009 and Matt Every in 2015 – and both went on to hoist the trophy.

“This place is brutal and it’s only going to get harder as the week goes on,” Scheffler said.

Scottie Scheffler opens with 68 at Bay Hill.

Last 15 years, two other defending champions at @APinv started the week with 68 or better: 2015 Matt Every (won) and 2009 Tiger Woods (won).

— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGolf) March 2, 2023

He called a 10-foot birdie at No. 8, a tricky par-4 dogleg right, the highlight of his round and also benefited from making a pair of deuces, chipping in from 43 feet short left of the par-3 second green and holing a 39-foot putt at the par-3 17th.

“Two bogeys, a little frustrating, but it’s a pretty hard golf course and it doesn’t take much to make a bogey out here,” Scheffler said.

He credited staying out of the rough with giving him a handful of birdie opportunities and declared the greens “ridiculously firm for a Thursday morning.”

“It better not blow too hard or they may need to slow them down or something,” Scheffler said. “I really don’t know what they’re going to do.”

Fortunately, Scheffler thrives on hard courses and won at Bay Hill a year ago with a winning score of 4 under when the tournament turned into a U.S. Open in March.

“I feel like it’s a place where I can just try and hang in there,” said Scheffler. “That’s what I did last year. I didn’t play amazing for four days. One of the guys I played a practice round with this week asked me what I did so well last year, and I just told ’em I survived. That’s really what it felt like.”

Scheffler, who entered the week ranked second in the Official World Golf Ranking, can return to World No. 1 with a victory (as long as the current top dog Jon Rahm finishes worse than a two-way tie for second) or potentially as low as a two-way tie for second (as long as Rahm finishes worse than 25th and Rory McIlroy doesn’t win).

Kirk, 37, who won for the first time in nearly eight years on Tour, had a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call and began with a bogey at No. 10, but recovered with seven birdies en route to posting 67.

“I felt a little bit like a zombie this morning, but can’t really take away from the excitement that I have playing this event every year,” he said.

Young, 25, chipped in for eagle at the par-5 12th to match Kirk with 67. Young, a Wake Forest graduate like the tournament’s namesake, is seeking his first Tour title and was satisfied with his start despite not having his ‘A game.’

“I think I was really happy with the way I put a round together today,” he said. “Any time you break par out here you’re doing OK. Today I just feel like every time I had a chance to make birdie I did.”