A rare birdie at the home hole on Saturday gave England’s Tyrell Hatton a 1-over-par 73, which doesn’t sound like a significant achievement, except that happened to be one of the better scores on an exacting day at Bay Hill Club & Lodge.

That final stroke, a putt from 31 feet, also gave Hatton a two-stroke lead heading into today’s final round. A four-time winner on the European Tour, Hatton completed 54 holes at 6-under 210, two strokes ahead of Rory McIlroy and Marc Leishman, who won this prestigious tournament in 2018 and 2017, respectively.

McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world, bogeyed No. 18 to also card 73, while Leishman, an Australian who won earlier this year at the Farmers Insurance Open, was one of seven players to equal par-72 – the second-best score of the day.

“I’m very happy with that [round], even if it was over par,” said Hatton, 28, who converted just one of his three birdies on the signature 18th hole on the Championship Course. “Obviously it was extremely tough out there. You could be made to look pretty silly at times without hitting too bad a golf shot.”

If Friday’s second round was frustrating, the third round, challenging because of gusting winds and firm greens, was downright mean as the scoring average soared to 75.913, the third highest for a single round in tournament history.

Only one player, Max Homa, broke par, shooting an early 2-under 70 despite a double bogey at the last. The only other time there were no rounds in the 60s at Bay Hill was the final round in 1980, which happens to be the most trying in tournament history. Amid frigid temperatures, the field averaged 78.840 and Dave Eichelberger won easily despite a closing 74.

“I actually added my score up in the scorer's hut there and kind of did a double-take,” Leishman said. “It added up to 72, and it felt like I shot a 65. So, yeah, it was really tough.”

After Leishman and McIlroy, four men shared fourth place at 3-under 213: Sungjae Im, Danny Lee, Harris English and Christian Bezuidenhout. Sung Kang, who shared the second-round lead with Hatton, played his last two holes in 4 over par and fell five strokes off the pace with a 78.

“I said the weekend's just going to be about hanging around – hang around the lead, make pars, pick off your birdies when you can,” McIlroy said. “Looking at the scores it just felt like a U.S. Open out there. So, yeah, it's a good test. I think [Sunday] is going to be a similar day.”

Hatton, who holds his first 54-hole lead on the PGA TOUR, felt good about his performance thus far, but was preparing for another challenge today.

“It's nice to have a two-shot lead going into the final day, but you still got 18 holes to go,” he said. “I think [Saturday] proved that … there's doubles (double bogeys) and triples just around the corner, so that two-shot lead can go extremely quickly. Just got to see what happens. Eighteen holes is a lot of golf, and I'm sure it will be interesting to watch.”

In other news:

  • Sam Saunders, grandson of Arnold Palmer and a former club champion at Bay Hill, made the cut on the number at 3-over 147 on Friday, and he added a 78 on Saturday to begin the final round T-61. Saunders, 32, is playing in just his fourth event after being sidelined by a shoulder injury that he suffered late last summer.
  • For the second straight year, there is a tournament within a tournament. The Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard is part of the Open Qualifying Series, offering three spots in the 2020 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s to the top players (not otherwise exempt) who finish in the top 10 and ties.
  • The difficult conditions on Saturday slowed the eagle tally at Bay Hill. Just three eagles were recorded, resulting in another $15,000 donation to Orlando Health from Dr. Phillips Charities in the “Eagles for Arnie Program.” That brings the total number of eagles to 22 eagles worth $110,000. There were 37 eagles converted in the 2019 tournament and 39 in 2018.


Dave Shedloski