Five Things: Long-drive contest fizzles out

Dustin Johnson during the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

ORLANDO, Fla. – On a breezy day at Bay Hill, the highly anticipated long-drive contest fizzled. With the wind whipping and the rough swallowing wayward tee shots, the opening round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational was a day for survival, for course management. Certainly not for ego.

Only 21 players in the 120-man field broke par, and that didn’t include a player from the marquee group of Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Gary Woodland. In fact, the titanium-denting trio, playing the super-sized 7,381-yard layout, combined to shoot 11 over par. Woods (73) bogeyed the last hole after failing to get up-and-down from short of the 18th green, leaving him seven strokes back of leader Spencer Levin (66).

“I didn’t drive the ball well starting out, and then I got a hold of that,” said Woods, whose 73 was his highest start at Bay Hill since 1999. His main problem was on the greens (32 putts). Several times on the back nine, Woods backed off while over a putt, saying it was difficult to take back the putter on line with the wind gusting. Woodland said he had the same problem, and struggled when the greens got bumpier and picked up speed late in the afternoon.

“I thought par would be good,” said Woodland (77), who won last week at the Transitions Championship. “I was just trying to fight all day, trying to get somewhere around par.”

It was a strange day, indeed. Woodland put a drive out of bounds on No. 6 after his ball hit a cart path. Johnson’s second shot on No. 8 also hit the path and bounded over the green some 80 yards, near the next tee. And on 12, Woods hit the flagstick with a wedge shot that ruined one of his best opportunities for birdie.

Woods played conservatively, using an iron or fairway wood off many tees. He struggled with his ballstriking early in the round but looked more solid as the afternoon wore on. A drive down the right side on 18 drew a bad lie in the rough and led to a bogey. He hit only four fairways in Round 1.

“It would have been nice to end up with par on the last hole,” Woods said. “That always leaves kind of a bad taste in your mouth. But overall, I’m still right there in the ball game.”

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

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Perhaps it had something to do with Bay Hill, considering the Orlando resident has been playing here since 1992. Or maybe it had something to do with the steady breeze, for Lee Janzen fancies himself a better wind player since working with coach Mike Bender. Really, though, the main reason Janzen shot 70 in difficult conditions was his work on the greens. Janzen needed only 23 putts. “I feel good about a lot of parts in my game,” Janzen said. “There are just some mistakes I need to eliminate.”

Such as, dumping three balls into the water. Afterward, Janzen said, “You’d have to really do some research to see if I’ve ever shot under par with three water balls.”

Experience at Bay Hill helps, too. “I think that provides some comfort, or at least lessens the anxiety of the unknown,” he said.

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One of the enduring images of 2010 was Hunter Mahan’s tearful news conference after the U.S. lost the Ryder Cup in Wales. Having learned from that experience, Mahan said Thursday that he’s in a much better place with his game – and his mental approach. “I felt like if I wanted to be a top-5 player in the world, someone who can go out there and win majors, I have to have a better, more consistent attitude week-in and week-out,” said Mahan, who shot 69 on Thursday, one of only three rounds in the 60s. “I couldn’t be so judgmental on one shot or one hole. We play so much golf, you don’t realize how beat down you can get if you’re so tough on yourself.”

It seems to have worked: Mahan has four top-10 finishes in seven starts this season.

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In the morning, when the wind was minimal, Rickie Fowler surged to the early lead at 5 under before dropping shots on his final two holes of the day, Nos. 8 and 9, to shoot 69. “I felt like today was probably some of the best I’ve struck it all year,” Fowler said. “I just had a few putts that slid by and it could have been a really good round versus just a good starting round.”

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Thirteen players posted a round in the 80s Thursday, the most on a day at Bay Hill since the second round in 1983 (24). ... Levin’s three-shot lead is the largest 18-hole margin on Tour this season. It’s the third time this season that he has held at least a share of the lead, with mixed results: T-12 at Torrey Pines, T-14 at the Honda. ... Phil Mickelson, with yet another chance to pass Woods in the Official World Golf Ranking, shot 70 in Round 1. He has shot in the 60s just once in his past 10 rounds on Tour. ... Fifty-year-old Kenny Perry (79) withdrew after the first round with a hip and knee injury.

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