First-round leader Spencer Levin went out early Friday morning here at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge – just after sunup, in fact – and quickly stretched his overnight lead from three shots to as many as six at one point. Maintaining his blistering pace was the priority.
“If you’re making a bunch of birdies out here,” the youngster said, “there is somebody else who is going to be making a bunch of birdies. If you think you're playing great, somebody else is going to be playing great. It's just a different level than other golf.”
Levin hasn’t yet won a PGA TOUR title, but he sure understands what he’s up against in the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard.
The 26-year-old from Elk Grove, California, submitted a 2-under-par 70 and then watched as the rest of the field caught up on a “gettable” day of scoring on Bay Hill’s Championship Course. First, Korea’s K.J. Choi fired a tournament-low 64 to tie Levin at 8-under 136.
Not long thereafter, Martin Laird of Scotland did them one better. His 12-foot birdie putt on his last hole, the ninth, completed a 65 that lifted him to 9-under 135 and halfway lead, his first on the TOUR.
“Most of it was all on the greens, and obviously I'm driving the ball really well and putting really well. Ask any pro; that's a pretty good combination to have, especially on a golf course this long where you have to drive the ball in the fairway,” said Laird, 28, who has four top-25s this season.
Laird and Levin are in the tournament’s final pairing today at 1:40 p.m. EDT.
On Friday, it was nearly everyone into the birdie pool as the scoring average dived to 72.297, more than two strokes lower than Round 1. Six-time champion Tiger Woods was among the notables putting themselves in position to challenge in the 33rd edition of this prestigious invitational.
Steve Marino, also seeking his first title, played alongside Levin and shot a 5-under 67 and was among four player sitting three behind Laird at 138, tied with Orlando’s Charles Howell III, who fashioned a 65. Hunter Mahan joined them with his second straight 69, while Vaughn Taylor posted 68.
With the winds calmed considerably, players took advantage of the scoring opportunity, but mostly it was the morning golfers encountering smoother and softer greens who had an opportunity to advance up the board, and they made their move. Fifteen players broke 70 and 26 bettered par playing early.
That contingent included Woods, who whose 68 left him six back at 136. That’s the closest he’s been to the lead after 36 holes on the PGA TOUR this year as he seeks to end a victory drought dating to the 2009 BMW Championship.
“I played pretty clean today,” said Woods, who needed just 26 putts in a round with just one bogey. “I hit the ball probably as well as I did coming in yesterday all day today. And I left probably think five putts short that were dead center. So this could have been a pretty special round.”
Other movers from the morning included former PGA champion David Toms, who shot 67, and Sergio Garcia with a 68. They are among five players tied with Woods at 141. In between are Rickie Fowler and Jason Dufner at 140 after they shot 71 and 71, respectively.
Choi thought at the start of the day that a round of 2- or 3-under would have been a fine score after the wind-blown opening round. But then he got on a roll and breezed around bogey free with six birdies and an eagle.
“I’ve always wanted to play well on this course, but it just so happened to be that after I tried maybe just too hard, I couldn't really get the performance that I wanted,” said Choi, who shot only his fourth round in the 60s at Bay Hill with the help of an old Odyssey putter. “I would never have thought that I would score 8‑under today on a course like this. I just want to keep this rhythm going on for the last two days.”
Of course, not everyone could get it rolling. The cut fell at 4-over 148 with 73 players surviving.
Among those sent packing were U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, who shot 73-153, last week’s Transitions Championship winner Gary Woodland (76-153) Bob Hope Classic winner Jhonattan Vegas (75-155) and 2007 Bay Hill winner Vijay Singh (75-150). Fellow former champions Paul Goydos, Andy Bean, Robert Gamez and Andrew Magee also failed to advance.
Defending champion Ernie Els carded even-par 72 and made the cut at 3-over 147. Phil Mickelson also is in, though he fell back at 75-145.