ORLANDO, Fla. – Martin Laird loves when he can smash a driver, and that carried him a long way Friday at Bay Hill.
Laird reached three of the par 5s in two shots, converted one of them into an eagle and wound up with a 7-under 65 for a one-shot lead over K.J. Choi and Spencer Levin in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
It wasn’t just the par 5s. Even without any wind in the afternoon, Laird hit driver on the 384-yard fifth hole to set up a simple pitch and another birdie. He closed his round with a 321-yard tee shot on the ninth and a 12-foot birdie.
Choi put in three hybrids to go with his driver and two fairway metals, all to get ready for the Masters. It paid dividends at Bay Hill with a tournament-best 64. Levin didn’t play his best in the morning, but his putting carried him to a 70. Levin made all four of his birdie putts outside 15 feet to stay atop the leaderboard until Laird’s late surge.
Tiger Woods is still in the game, too.
Woods raised his arm on the ninth green as his 20-foot birdie putt rolled in for a 4-under 68, leaving him six shots behind going into the weekend. Considering how so much of his year has gone, this would be considered progress for the six-time winner at Bay Hill.
Laird was at 9-under 135.
“I’m driving the ball really well and putting really well,” Laird said. “Ask any pro – that’s a pretty good combination to have, especially on a golf course this long where you have to drive the ball in the fairway.”
Temperatures are expected to soar on the weekend, and Saturday figures to sort out several players still in the mix.
Charles Howell III, who needs a win to play his hometown tournament in two weeks at Augusta National, had a 65 and was three shots behind with Hunter Mahan and Steve Marino.
Mahan turned his fortunes around quickly. He went out in 38 to fall seven shots behind, then ran off four straight birdies to start the back nine, and finished with a shot that hit the pin on the 18th for his seventh birdie in a round of 69. He was
“My game didn’t go anywhere … it just didn’t feel good,” Mahan said. “But it can change that quickly. So I knew that and I just had to trust that it was going to happen.”
Choi has never shot better than 67 at Bay Hill, and he wasn’t expecting a low one Friday. Along with changing his bag to include the three hybrids – his irons begin with the 7-iron – he saw Pat O’Brien last month to help with his putting and realized his posture was off. Choi then went back to his old putter, and it was a happy reunion.
“I would never have thought that I would score 8 under today on a course like this,” Choi said. “I’m just happy that I’ve done that, and I just want to keep this rhythm going on for the last two days.”
For a short time, it didn’t seem as though so many players would be in the mix.
Levin walked off the sixth green during his morning round and noticed that he already had a six-shot lead. He didn’t make his first bogey of the tournament until the 14th hole of the second round, then dropped another shot on the 17th.
He wound up with a 70 and had a two-shot lead when he finished, then fell one behind to Laird.
“I scored a lot better than I played today,” Levin said.
Marino played with Levin and was far more crisp, especially a series of iron shots around the turn that left him easy birdie putts. Marino had a 67, giving him yet another chance of that first PGA Tour victory. Already this year he had a chance in the Sony Open and the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
“Every time I put myself in a position like that, it gives me more confidence,” Marino said. “If I have the game to do what it takes to get to that point, it’s just a matter of time for me until I just keep doing the same things and finish one off.”
Rickie Fowler also is looking for his first win. He was making his way up the leaderboard until bogeys on his last two holes for a 71. He was at 4-under 140, along with Jason Dufner.
Woods was five shots back in his season debut at Torrey Pines, only to fall apart on the weekend. This round was relatively clean, with his only bogey coming on the third hole when good contact out of the rough turned too much, bounced twice off the rocks framing the green and stayed in the hazard.
He got what he deserved, for while he missed a few putts inside 12 feet, he holed a 55-foot birdie putt from the fringe on the 18th with a putt that looked as though it would go some 5 feet by if the cup didn’t get in the way.
That was a rarity. So many other times, his putt was on line and came up short.
“I had a hard time getting the ball to the hole today,” Woods said. “That was probably the main thing. I left five putts that were dead center short, and this could have been a pretty special round if I had hit it a little harder.”
Even so, he was still in the picture. That wasn’t the case at Doral or the Match Play Championship, where he was beaten in the first round. Bay Hill takes on more significance because it’s his last tournament before the Masters.
“We’re trying to build toward the first major, and that’s kind of how my game is,” he said. “It’s building and it’s coming.”
DIVOTS: The cut was at 4-over 148, the highest in six years at Bay Hill. Among those making the cut were Sam Saunders, the grandson of tournament host Arnold Palmer. … Woods was the only one to survive the “power pairing” as Dustin Johnson (74) and Gary Woodland (76) missed the cut. Johnson broke his driver on a tee shot at the par-5 sixth that went into the water. He still managed to make par on the hole. … U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell missed the cut after rounds of 80-73.