ORLANDO, Fla. – Adam Scott’s health improved Saturday, but his security blanket shrank. He said he had a bounce back in his step, that only “leftover bits” remained from his midweek flu. Problem was, while he bounced, others sprinted toward him in the Arnold Palmer Invitational’s third round.
And so Scott started the day seven strokes ahead of three players and, after an uneven 1-under 71 at Bay Hill, ended it three ahead of 2011 PGA champion Keegan Bradley (66) and four ahead of Matt Every (66) and Jason Kokrak (67).
We are no longer in the midst of what seemed like a foregone conclusion. Seven up wasn’t as tasty as it appeared.
“You’d think seven is a lot, but it isn’t really, especially with 36 holes left,” said the reigning Masters champion, who opened with a hot-putting 62 en route to 15-under 201. “If I was seven back (midway), I’d think I had a chance.”
Still, optimists would view a three-shot advantage as half full, not half empty, and so does Scott. “It’s a really good spot to be in,” the affable Australian said.
If he wins Sunday, Scott would move from second to first in the Official World Golf Ranking before he defends at the April 10-13 Masters. While that might be a delicious carrot dangling, Scott said he will focus on nailing down his 11th PGA Tour victory.
“My mindset tomorrow is to put my foot down early, extend the lead and make it difficult to catch,” Scott said.
Smart money would back him. He’s 33, in the peak of his career, playing the best golf of his life and has won six of the nine times he has at least co-led after 54 holes. Still, he said he is motivated to close better than he used to.
For certain, he needs a better start than he had Sunday. He bogeyed two of the first five holes, including with three putts at the first, and his lead dwindled to one briefly. He didn’t hole anything longer than 4 feet on the front, but he made birdie putts of 31, 24 and 15 feet on the back while rebuilding the advantage to five shots temporarily.
Missed par putts of 5-6 feet at Nos. 14 and 17, and Bradley’s finishing kick of three consecutive birdies contributed to the tightened margin.
Bradley played his way into the final group and figures to be Scott’s biggest obstacle. The three-time Tour winner has seven top 20s this season but no finishes better than 10th. His work on the greens (96th in strokes gained-putting) has held him back, but that wasn’t a problem Saturday. Bradley made 106 feet of putts.
“I’m really striking the ball well and finally seeing putts go in,” the long-hitting Bradley said.
He said he likes his three-back position because it puts him in an “underdog role where you know you have to play well.”
He’s right. Chase mode certainly beats protect mode. But then there are easier tasks than running down someone on the edge of world golf’s top rung.