By Dave Shedloski
Riding a wave of confidence from his victory two weeks ago, Ernie Els had just enough luck to get out of an unlucky situation Friday and stormed into a share of the lead in the 32nd Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard.
The Big Easy converted hard pars at the sixth and seventh holes at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge and went on to card a 3-under 69, good for the 36-hole lead at 7-under 137 with Ben Curtis, D.J. Trahan and first-round co-leader Davis Love III.
“Yeah, I said to Ricci [Roberts, his caddie] on 6, I was a yard away from not probably being in the tournament anymore, because that would have been a sure double‑bogey,” said Els, who drove into the hazard, but was able to play his second shot from a slightly submerged lie just on the edge of the lake. “The ball stayed up. I don't know if it was the break or my mental strength at the moment. I'm not sure. But, you know, got through that little patch and started building again.
“It was unlucky and lucky,” added Els, who won this event in 1998.
Love, who had a crazy round on Thursday, endured more uneven play on Friday, playing nine holes before making a par in a 1-under 71. The former PGA champion got as low as 10 under during the round before falling back. Trahan employed a new putter in his 68, while Curtis, who has a home in Orlando, was one of three players to shoot 67 in ideal conditions when the course was soft due to overnight rains.
Love and Trahan each is seeking his first win since 2008; Curtis last won in 2006. The second-round leader has gone on to win just four of 12 stroke play events this year. Kenny Perry in 2005 was the last halfway leader to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard.
Three players are tied for fifth at 138, including former major winners Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen, who also shot 67. Kevin Na, seeking his first PGA TOUR title, joined them after a 70. World No. 2 Steve Stricker carded 71 to lead a group of eight players at 4-under 140. First-round co-leader J.B. Holmes struggled to a 74 and also was at 140.
Seventy-five players made the cut at 1-over 145. Those that were sent home early included past champions Perry, Robert Gamez and Andrew Magee.
Love, three times a runner-up at Bay Hill, had chip-ins for birdies on two par-3s, at Nos. 7 and 17 to continue his string of scrambling brilliance, but he couldn’t sustain the magic in another enervating round. Starting on the 10th tee, Love played his opening nine holes without a par, a feat recorded only three times last year.
“I was conscious of it,” Love said of his streak without a par. “I had a 50‑footer on 1 for birdie, and I'm like, let's just make a par for once, roll it down there and just get out of here.
“You know, just need to be a little bit more consistent. Like I said yesterday, if you hit it in the bunkers or the lakes, it's going to cost you, and I did that a few times today. Made some pretty simple mistakes today that are a little more disappointing than yesterday's mistakes, but again, I made a lot of nice putts, hit a lot of good shots, and obviously made a lot of birdies.”
Curtis, the former British Open champion, had taken the last two weeks off to work on his game with his swing coach, Steve Johnson, and after a slow start, with bogeys on the first two holes that dropped the native Ohioan to even, he found a groove.
“It’s just a few things that I've been working on all year. Just getting more comfortable with it,” said Curtis, who also adjusted his putting setup and made seven birdies in his last 10 holes. “Golf swing, it was just trying to feel comfortable and confident with what you're doing. The last few days I’ve been working really hard to just kind of have ‑‑ not no fear, but kind of swing away and go find it again instead of try to steer it.”
Arguably the hottest player on the leaderboard is Els, who won his last start two weeks ago at the CA Championship. He birdied six of his last 11 holes Friday after his fortunate par at 6 and another save from six feet at the par-3 7th after blasting out of a plugged lie in the front-right bunker.
Els has now led four of his last six rounds. He’s hot, but cool about it.
“To be honest with you, I'm not thinking about it,” Els said of his run. “I'm just thinking about, you know, playing good golf. That's all I want to think about. I want to think about getting my game in shape for Augusta. I'm thinking about getting my short game in great shape. I'm thinking about my putting all the time. I'm just thinking about getting my stuff together and keeping it together, you know what I'm saying. And that's all I can do and control. If I can be ready to play, I think I'll be OK.”