Scotland’s Martin Laird is poised to make a little history today in the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard. But he’s going to have to earn it.
After a 2-under 70 Saturday on the Championship Course at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, Laird will begin the final round here with a two-shot lead over Californian Spencer Levin, giving him a chance to become the first European winner of this tournament, now in its 33rd year. Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Rod Pampling are the only international champions here.
“It's a special event here, being Mr. Palmer's event. I think everyone in the field knows that, and you know it definitely gives it that little extra edge out there,” said Laird, who stands at 11-under 205.
In pursuit are a host of Americans – none of them Tiger Woods, who began the third round in contention but couldn’t get anything going in his bid for his seventh professional victory at Bay Hill.
Levin, the first-round leader, shot 71 for a 207 aggregate total. Bubba Watson and Steve Marino are two more strokes adrift after 68 and 71, respectively, while former PGA champion David Toms and last year’s Rookie of the Year Rickie Fowler, were another shot back at 210. Toms had a 69, Fowler 70.
Fowler and Marino also seek their breakthrough victory on the TOUR. The long-hitting lefty Watson won earlier this year at the Farmer’s Insurance Open.
Laird, who attended Colorado State University and has stayed in America to make it his “home for golf,” won his first TOUR title in 2009 in Las Vegas, but was twice a playoff hard-luck loser last year, the second while trying to repeat at the Justin Timberlake Shriner’s Hospital for Children Open. Jonathan Byrd beat him with an ace.
“I get the question all the time … you must hate that. But actually looking back, I'd rather lose to that than me hitting a bad tee shot and making bogey or something,” said Laird, who leads the field in total driving this week. “I didn't feel I really made a mistake to lose those tournaments.”
Following a 65 Friday, Laird stretched his lead to as many as four strokes early Saturday thanks to three straight birdies starting at the fourth. He had hiccups in between, and Levin eventually caught him at 10 under. A two-shot swing at the 16th, when Laird birdied from 5 feet and Levin bogeyed, accounted for the gap between the two and gave Laird his third 54-hole lead.
“I said after I won, I believed that I was good enough to win, but I actually really didn't know it. I mean, you really don't know it until you do it,” said Laird, who also owns a Nationwide Tour victory. “It’s tough. Even after I won (in Las Vegas), I've had three or four chances where I've had really good chances to win and not done it. You ask anyone; it's very, very tough to win a golf tournament. Doesn't matter where it is. I know that going into tomorrow.”
Levin, 26, isn’t just bidding for his first win, but also trying to become the first player since Robert Gamez in 1990 to win in his first Bay Hill appearance since. Oh, and also at stake is an invitation to the Masters. “That’s in the back of my mind for sure,” he admitted. “I’m sure it is for everybody who is in my position and needs a win to get there. But that’s cool. That’s a nice problem, a nice thing to be thinking about.”
Marino, who has never missed the cut in his five starts here, fought back into the picture when he holed out from a greenside bunker for birdie on the arduous par-3 17th. He was asked if it might be his time to win.
“I don’t know. When it happens, I’ll tell you,” he replied. “I’m just trying to do the same things I’ve been doing.”
Though the greens dried out Saturday, scoring on the Championship Course was the best of the week with the field averaging 71.863. Three men shared low round of the day at 6-under 66, and they were all out early: Charlie Wi, Kyle Stanley and Marc Leishman. Leishman is in a four-way tie for seventh at 211.
Woods, meanwhile, couldn’t get anything going. He began the day six behind Laird but struggled to a 74 and tumbled to a tie for 29th.
Today’s weather forecast calls for freshening winds, which should make the firm major championship-type setup more demanding.
Fowler, who has made 15 birdies and an eagle this week, couldn’t wait. “The game feels really good right now. I’ve been hitting a lot of good golf shots. Anything can happen once the wind starts blowing.”