ORLANDO, Fla. – For a good while in the final round, the Arnold Palmer Invitational looked like a tournament no one wanted to win. The final twosome spent much of the day in rewind, and other challengers hiccuped at key moments. In fact, the top three contenders hit shots into bunkers on the last three holes within the matter of a few seconds.
But just when it looked like he might be falling apart, Martin Laird of Scotland pulled himself together and played some brilliant golf on the last four holes. He made two birdies and two impressive pars in beating Steve Marino by one stroke for his second PGA Tour victory.
Laird, 28, had come to Bay Hill in good form, having finished in the top 10 the previous two weeks. He continued the good play in taking a two-shot cushion after 54 holes. But then he fell two strokes behind Marino thanks to four bogeys and a double bogey against only one birdie on the first 14 holes. And it could’ve been worse, for Laird saved par from 15 feet twice and from 6 feet on the first five holes.
“It was a tough fight,” Laird said. “I didn’t really feel I had my swing all day. I pretty much hit it all over the place until the last four holes.”
Just when it looked like he might be out of it when he missed a 4-foot par putt at 14, Laird got hold of himself. He birdied 15 from 22 feet after driving in rough behind a tree and 16 from 18 feet after blasting from a rear bunker. Suddenly he was two shots up on Marino.
I believe the nautical term is righting a sinking ship. Marino helped by double-bogeying the par-3 17th, where his tee shot plugged in softer than usual sand in the front bunker and his first putt from the back fringe went 5 feet by.
“Just a terrible putt,” Marino said of the 5-foot miss. “One hiccup cost me the tournament. You cannot afford to piss away shots in the final round.”
One of the Tour’s best players without a victory, Marino now has four runnerup finishes, including two this year. This time he was on the down side of a quick four-stroke swing. Laird walked off No. 14 2 down and off 16 2 up.
The Scot finished it off by getting up and down for par at 17, holing a 5-footer, and two-putting from 87 feet at the last moments after Marino had birdied from 8.
“It was a battle all day,” said Laird, whose first victory came at the 2009 Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. “It almost makes it a more sweeter win the way I did it.”
This was a victory for belief. After he doubled 11, Laird told his caddie that they still had two par 5s ahead. The caddie responded by pointing to the belly putter and saying, “Yeah, and we’ve still got this thing.”
It was his first victory after leading through 54 holes. Last year he lost two playoffs after taking third-round leads–to Matt Kuchar at the Barclays and to Jonathan Byrd at the Timberlake.
“The Barclays showed me you don’t have to play perfect to win,” Laird said. “I came so close not having my perfect game.”
He’s right about that. He won despite closing with 75, the highest Sunday score among the top 23 finishers here. It was the highest finish by a Tour winner since Trevor Immelman ended the 2008 Masters with 75 and the highest in a non-major since Peter Lonard won the 2005 Heritage with75. What’s more, the previous final-round high by a Bay Hill winner was 74.
“For most of the day I didn’t know where the ball was going,” Laird said before catching himself. “Yeah, I did – it was going right. I had no control of the ball ball with my irons.”
He sensed it early, too. Like on Saturday. He wasn’t crisp on the final four holes of the third round and his practice sessions that night and on Sunday morning were average at best.
Thank goodness for the driver and putter. They headlined the high fader’s week on a difficult golf course that on Sunday featured firm, fast greens and a tricky wind gusting to 20 mph.
Laird admitted the pressure affected him. But at least he won. Third-round leaders the previous two weeks weren’t as fortunate. Let’s just say closing on Tour isn’t as easy as Tiger Woods used to make it seem.
Two weeks ago at the WGC Cadillac Championship, Hunter Mahan fell back with 73, the highest score of the top nine finishers. Last week at the Transitions Championship, Justin Rose dropped to T-5 with a 74, the highest score among the top 50 finishers.
“You ask anyone,” Laird said. “It’s very, very tough to win a golf tournament. Doesn’t matter where it is.”
Laird has the look of someone who could be a top player for years. He’s young, talented and more confident than ever. His two victories inflated his self-esteem, but he said three top-5 finishes late last year were a big indicator for him.
“I always lacked a little confidence,” he said. “But that was when I started to realize I could be one of the best players.”