Spencer Levin is getting a lot of practice leading golf tournaments on the PGA TOUR. Sooner or later he’s going to figure out how to hold that position at the finish.
Levin, 26, of Elk Grove, California, fired an impeccable 6-under-par 66 Thursday here at the windswept Bay Hill Club & Lodge and darted out to a three-stroke lead over Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan after the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard. The bogey-free performance gave Levin the first-round lead for the third time this year.
“I was just kind of hoping, anything around par, maybe anything just under par would be a good score in the afternoon for sure,” said Levin, who also led after the first round at the Northern Trust Open and the Honda Classic. “It was just a good round. I played pretty solid all day, and then I made some putts that when you have a low round, you kind of make a few of them, and that's what I did. My putting was really good today. It was nice.”
Very nice. Levin, who needed just 24 putts, was one of two men in the 120-player field to post a bogey-free round. The other was Frederik Jacobson, who shot 71.
Levin, playing in his 10th event this year and has competed in 15 of 19 dating to last fall, hasn’t shot over par in his first round all year. But he has yet to find the winner’s circle, though he did lose a playoff to Johnson Wagner at the Mayakoba Golf Classic.
“What did Nicklaus say? ‘You can't win it in the first round but you can lose it.’ That's true,” Levin said. “Three more rounds to go. I'm just going to go out there and just try to do what I've been doing. It's easier said than done but just try not to get ahead of myself and try and deal with adversity as well as I can, and then try and play well again tomorrow.”
The nearest challengers to Levin are Mahan and Fowler, Ryder Cup teammates, at 69. Mahan hit 16 fairways and sank a 28-foot eagle putt at the par-5 16th. Fowler, last year’s PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year, got as low as 5 under par before bogeys on his final two holes. He also had an eagle at 16 after belting a hybrid from 214 yards to within six feet and holing the putt.
“I felt like today was probably some of the best I've struck it all year, where I was actually hitting some fairways and getting myself on the green,” said Fowler, who didn’t break par in his four tours of Bay Hill last year. “I just had a few putts that slid by and it could have been a really good round versus just a good starting round.”
Among a large group at 70 was reigning Masters champion Phil Mickelson, the No. 6 player in the world. Mickelson had three birdies and a bogey, and that bogey might have been the most fortunate among the entire field as Lefty’s second shot carried over the green when a gust of wind caught it. The ball bounced onto a cart path and towards out of bounds, but was intercepted by a gallery rope.
Six-time champion Tiger Woods missed his first nine fairways, but managed a 73, just one stroke better than 58-year-old Andy Bean, the 1982 winner. Graeme McDowell, the reigning U.S. Open champion, suffered a quadruple bogey-8 on the par-5 sixth hole on the way to an 80.
Defending champion Ernie Els scratched out a 75.
Though Levin toured Bay Hill without a blemish, the Championship Course at Bay Hill, buffeted by stiff gusts of wind out of the west, was increasingly inhospitable with its firm greens and thick rough. Just 21 players broke par-72. On the other end, 13 players shot 80 or higher. The field scoring average was a hefty 74.743.
“It’s got a nasty streak,” Rod Pampling, who won here in 2006, said of Palmer-designed layout measuring 7,400 yards.
Some players managed just fine, however, including Mahan, who already has four top-10 finishes this year.
“I’ve been hitting a lot of good shots and my game is fairways and greens,” Mahan said. “If I can do that and give myself a lot of good looks, and I can figure out these greens and hopefully … I think this course is going to change a lot. So we are going to have to be really sharp mentally out there, because playing tomorrow afternoon, it could be a lot different than this morning.”
The conditions might change. But the quality of the test will remain high-caliber.
Said Bubba Watson, another among the group of players at 2-under 70: “I played OK, but I’m not too excited. I’ve got three more days of tough golf.”
Welcome to Bay Hill everyone.