Fond memories linger in Orlando for Laird

Martin Laird during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Fourteen miles and more than two years removed from this Arnold Palmer Invitational, Martin Laird hit arguably the most important putt of his career.

Despite being struck far from the spotlight, it’s a putt that still defines his career. It was during the Tour’s Fall Series, after the FedEx Cup and at a time of year when the nation’s focus is on football. The 7-footer put Laird in a tie for 21st in the PGA Tour season finale, the Children’s Miracle Network Classic.

What’s so important about a putt for a middling finish at a second-tier Tour event? Well, Laird’s par attempt on the 72nd hole was necessary for him to keep his card. He finished No. 125 on that season’s PGA Tour money list, grabbing the final fully-exempt spot.

Laird, 28, went on to win his first Tour title, the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, the next season. He since has developed into one of the Tour’s rising stars, vaulting 64 spots in the Official World Golf Ranking since the start of 2010. He ranks 40th.

Laird enters Sunday at Bay Hill with a two-stroke lead over Spencer Levin. He’s seeking his second PGA Tour title, and first during the FedEx Cup season. The pressure he feels Sunday may pale in comparison to what he felt that final day at Walt Disney World.

“Those (final) three holes at Disney that year were the most nervous I’ve been on a golf course,” Laird said. “To hole that obviously gave me a lot of confidence. I went on to win Vegas and hole a big putt there, and I definitely drew on that.”

Levin, 26, can’t point to a similar moment that helped him turn into one of the Tour’s top performers of 2011. Instead, it was a realization. Levin was a star amateur in 2004 – he tied for 13th at the U.S. Open, and won three major amateur titles – but had to start his pro career on the mini-tours after failing to pass Q-School. While playing at professional golf’s lowest levels, he lost that tireless work ethic that had led to his earlier success.

“I remember playing the mini-tours. It was almost - not that I didn’t enjoy playing golf for a living - but it was almost like I wasn’t grinding hard,” said Levin, who turned pro in 2005. “That was '07, I think, when I started actually realizing, OK, this is my job.”

They’ll both be back to work on Sunday, battling for a title at Arnie’s Place.

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