Second-round leader Sean O'Hair bogeyed three of his last four holes Saturday afternoon at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, but fought his way to a one-over-par 71 and still managed to widen his advantage over most of the field heading into today's final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard.
On a sunny but breezy afternoon, with winds gusting up to 33 miles per hour making the greens hard and slick, O'Hair was among a handful of players who managed to keep his wits about him and avoid big numbers, and his reward is a five-shot lead over five-time winner and defending champion Tiger Woods, who matched O'Hair's score with 71.
"I feel very good and very comfortable with where my game is right now," said O'Hair, who completed 54 holes in seven-under 203 and padded his lead by two more strokes. "It was obviously a tough day for everybody, and I feel good that I played solid all day.”
O’Hair’s five-shot lead is the second largest after 54 holes in the 31-year history of this event. Mike Nicolette and Fred Couples each led by six strokes in 1983 and 1992, respectively. Woods was the last player to lead by five shots at Bay Hill, in 2003, and he went on to win by a record 11 strokes.
Woods and O’Hair will be in the final group today with Zach Johnson, who is tied for third at one-under 209 after a stout 68. Woods and O’Hair played together in the final twosome a year ago, with Woods emerging with his fifth straight PGA Tour title, a streak that ended the following week.
Just four players, led by Brandt Snedeker with 67, broke par Saturday on the Champions Course, and only four more shot even-par 70 among the 74 who made the cut. The field scoring average ballooned to 73.459.
Jason Gore, the first-round leader, was within four strokes of O’Hair until he suffered a late putting collapse that dropped him into a tie for third place with Johnson and Ryuji Imada at 209. Gore, who shot 74, missed a two-foot par putt on the 17th hole, and then needed four to get down from the back fringe at the 18th with his fifth stroke misfiring from 18 inches.
“The golf course played tough,” Gore said. “I felt like I hit some great shots, but you’ve just got to keep moving forward, staying focused.”
O’Hair, 26, is moving in the right direction this week. He did get as low as 10 under par when he ran off three straight birdies on holes 11 through 13 before the arduous conditions took a toll. The final two holes he bogeyed by being overly cautious, but he wasn’t disappointed.
“You’re just trying to hang on for dear life down the stretch there,” he said. Seeking his third PGA Tour title, the former central Florida resident remembers plenty about last year’s final-round tussle with Woods as the two men were part of a six-way logjam before Tiger prevailed. While Woods fired 66, O’Hair shot a respectable 69 to tie for third. It was a big day. He learned a lot about himself and the man who now is chasing him.
“I think I experienced a few different kinds of emotions [last year]. As a competitor I was a little bit ticked off at myself that I played the front as bad as I did because I played the back fairly well,” O’Hair said.
“Obviously it was cool to see the putt [by Woods] go in. It didn’t matter for me obviously because I was out of it, but it was cool to see that whole thing on 18 and just kind of how you had a feel when he was stalking the putt … you had a good feeling about it. But as a competitor you’re just ticked off that you didn’t have the opportunity to take it to 18.”
He hopes to change that today. His mindset is one of simply concentrating on his own affairs.
“I’m playing with Tiger, and everybody I’m sure is asking, ‘What do you feel about that?,’” O’Hair said. “I don’t think I can do anything that’s going to make him play worse, so I think I’m just going to focus on me and focus on my game and do what I’m doing right now, and that’s just playing shot to shot and add them up at the end.”