Rapid reaction: Laird's win at Bay Hill

Martin Laird hugs his fiance Meagan after winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Martin Laird hugs his fiance Meagan after winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

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4:20:02 PM ET. 04/19/2014




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ORLANDO, Fla. – Hand in hand, Arnold Palmer and his wife, Kit, waited patiently atop the hill behind the 18th green to greet the battered champion. “Tough golf course today,” Martin Laird said, grinning, and he patted The King on the shoulder.

Needing a two-putt from 87 feet on the final green, Laird nestled his first putt close and punched the air when his 3 1/2-footer fell. It was his second Tour victory, and said afterward that, “I was not going to let this one get away.”

Last fall, at the Barclays, Laird three-putted from 25 feet on the final hole, then lost to Matt Kuchar in a playoff. A lesson learned there served him well at Arnie’s Place: “You don’t have to play perfect to win golf tournaments,” he said.

Sunday at Bay Hill? It was far from perfect. Laird made the turn in 39, and his four-shot advantage had turned into a three-stroke deficit, and suddenly it seemed like another final-round opportunity had been wasted. But he played the last four holes (all dogleg-rights, suiting his natural shot shape) in 2 under to shoot 75, the highest final-round score by a winner at Bay Hill. That mattered little, of course. In the end, after a grueling final round, he still had a meeting with The King.

“That was a battle all day,” Laird said, “and it almost makes it more sweet to win it the way I did.”

Here’s what else you need to know from the final round at Bay Hill:

1. Another lesson for Levin. In contention again on Sunday, Spencer Levin bogeyed four of the first five holes and never recovered, shooting a 76 to finish T-6. Turns out a 71 was all Levin would have needed to win. Still, it was his fifth top-10 finish in 10 starts this season, but he says he learned a valuable lesson during his Sunday struggles at Bay Hill: On championship venues, use caution.

“I started realizing that you couldn’t really go at any of these pins,” Levin said. “You almost had to pretend like there was no pin in the green.”

That would have served Levin well on Nos. 3 and 4, where he overshot the green and made bogey. He tried to play conservatively the rest of the round – a difficult concept when already 4 over for the day.

As for Laird, Levin said of the champion: “He’s a pro all the way around. He acts like a pro, very composed, very confident, and he putts great. You can see why he’s such a good player when he putts like that.”

• • •

2. Rose gets back in the mix. A week after frittering away a final-round lead at Transitions, Justin Rose mounted a Sunday charge at Bay Hill and will head into the Masters with some much-needed momentum.

Rose came home in 31 (including a birdie on the 18th) to shoot 68 and finish joint third, two strokes back. Last week, in the final round at Innisbrook, Rose made four bogeys around the turn and wound up five strokes behind winner Gary Woodland. “Hopefully I’m on a good track,” Rose said. “I was a little bit down after last week. ... I should have done a lot better, so it was a little bit of redemption today. It gives me a little trust that I am doing things really, really well, especially under pressure.”

• • •

3. More mediocrity from Tiger, Lefty. A 74-72 weekend at Bay Hill did little to inspire faith in Woods’ “process,” which now looks like it could take months, not weeks, to take hold. Remarkably, he could have finished in the top 10 if not for a bogey-double bogey finish (eventually finished T-24).

“I hit three water balls this week and a few missed putts here and there, and I’m not that far behind,” he said. “Add all that together, you can’t afford to make those mistakes.” Asked what he’d need to work on before the Masters, Woods replied: “Same thing,” another nod to his ongoing swing overhaul. “Just keep working on the same thing,” he said. “It’s getting better every week I’ve played, and just need to keep progressing and hopefully it will peak two more Thursdays from now.”

Mickelson, meanwhile, has only two top-10 finishes on Tour this season (including a runner-up at Torrey Pines), and he never mounted a challenge at Bay Hill, shooting rounds of 70-75-69-73 to finish T-24. Interestingly, he says his game feels better than this time last year. Of course, in 2010, Lefty had an enlightening range session with instructor Butch Harmon at Augusta, and he went on to claim his third green jacket. “I think I’m playing a little bit better this year, but I’m not getting the results,” he said.

• • •

4. So, who is the favorite at Augusta? For many, Bay Hill represented the final tune-up before the Masters. That Laird, ranked 40th in the world, captured the title at Arnie’s Place wasn’t insignificant. Seems virtually everyone can win any given week.

But that isn’t always the case at the Masters. “There’s no other major where knowledge of how to play the golf course comes into play,” Woods said earlier this week. “That’s why I think you see so many repeat winners there. You really have to know how to play that golf course.”

OK, so with two weeks to go, who is the favorite? Is it Woods, who has just one top 10 on Tour since June? Is it Mickelson, who plays Augusta arguably better than anyone else? Is it Bubba Watson, the preeminent shotmaker? Is it Nick Watney, the emerging star? Or is it Lee Westwood, or is it Graeme McDowell, or is it one of the young upstarts, such as Rickie Fowler?

Such is the state of flux in our game when the No. 1 player in the world, Martin Kaymer, isn’t the odds-on favorite to don the green jacket in two weeks.

• • •

5. One-way route to Augusta. Next week’s PGA Tour stop, in Houston, offers the final chance to head to Magnolia Lane, and nothing short of a victory will suffice. (Eight of the top 20 players in the world are in the field at Redstone.) Matteo Manassero and J.B. Holmes entered Bay Hill as the only two players ranked Nos. 46-60 not already exempt – today was the cut-off date to gain entry via the world ranking – and they didn’t improve that standing this week. (Manassero missed the cut and Holmes, after a final-round 76, finished T-47.)

At the start of the final round, four players inside the top 10 had a chance to earn a spot in the Masters with a win. No player had a better chance than Levin, but he struggled the final day. He will tee it up in Houston, along with the others – Marc Leishman (T-3), John Senden (T-24) and Augusta native Charles Howell III (T-38) – in the final atttempt to punch a ticket to Augusta.

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