Laird holds 54-hole lead at Bay Hill
Martin Laird's fortunes rose and fell Saturday at Bay Hill. The only thing that never changed was his name atop the leaderboard in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Laird finally regained control with a two-shot swing on the par-5 16th and finished with a 2-under 70 for a two-shot lead over Spencer Levin going into the final round with high stakes.
Six players were separated by five shots, a group that does not include Tiger Woods. He traded an eagle and birdies with bogeys and a double bogey on his back nine that sent him to a 74, leaving him 10 shots behind.
Laird ran off three straight birdies early in the round to build a four-shot lead. Four holes later, Levin pulled within one shot and they were tied for the lead with three holes to play.
That's when it turned in the Scot's favor.
Laird got up-and-down for birdie from just right of the green on the 16th, while Levin was in trouble from the start. He drove into the trees, chipped out into a bunker and then pulled his third shot into the water. He had to make a 6-foot putt to escape with bogey on the easiest hole at Bay Hill. Levin wound up with a 71.
Laird was at 11-under 205 as he goes after his second career PGA Tour victory. Levin has never won, and even more is on the line Sunday. A victory would send him to Augusta National for the first time.
Laird already has secured a spot in the Masters because of a day he would rather forget. He lost a three-shot lead at the Barclays, three-putting for bogey on the final hole to slip into a playoff that he lost to Matt Kuchar. The runner-up finish in the opening FedEx Cup playoff event was enough to get him into the Tour Championship and lock up a spot at the Masters.
This will be the third time he has held a 54-hole lead. Two months after losing at the Barclays, he lost a 54-hole lead in Las Vegas when Jonathan Byrd made a hole-in-one to win a three-man playoff.
''I know tomorrow I have to concentrate hard ... and hopefully I'll wind up on top,'' Laird said.
He went to Augusta National to practice a few weeks ago and looks forward to the Masters. But that can wait. The winner at Bay Hill gets a trophy, a big paycheck and an audience with the King, tournament host Arnold Palmer.
''This is a pretty good tournament to win, too,'' he said.
But there is much work ahead of him, especially if the gusts return to a course that already is demanding.
Bubba Watson, a winner already this year at Torrey Pines, holed a 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th to finish off a 68. He was at 7-under 209, four shots behind. Also at 209 was Steve Marino, who already has had two good chances at his first PGA Tour win this year.
Rickie Fowler, dressed in hot pink that elicited cries of ''Pretty Rickie'' from a large, sun-baked gallery, overcame a double bogey on the sixth when he drove into the water and shot 70 to stay in the game at 6-under 210, along with David Toms (69).
Woods started poorly, going from the left rough to the bunker and missing a 7-foot par putt on the opening hole. He had one stretch that went birdie-bogey-eagle, and with the leaders getting away from him, went after the flag on the 13th and hit along the rocks. He wound up missing a 5-footer to take double bogey, then hit a fat shot from the bunker into the water on the 16th to make bogey.
He has yet to break 70 in the third round this year.
''I made a few mistakes out there,'' Woods said. ''There was a point in the round I had to get more aggressive on 13 and paid the price for it. I figured I needed to shoot 3 or 4 under, and it backfired on me a little bit.''
He will complete a full year on tour without a victory. Sunday is his last round before the Masters.
Some others are simply trying to get to Magnolia Lane. Of the top 10 players on the leaderboard, four have yet to qualify. That includes Marc Leishman, who had a 66 to reach 5-under 211. Also at 211, six shots behind, were John Senden (68) and Charles Howell III, the Augusta native who was four shots out of the lead at one point until bogeys on two of his last four holes. He shot 73.
Levin figures to have the best chance at catching Laird.
''As good a chance as anybody except the guy right here,'' he said, motioning to Laird.
DIVOTS: Vaughn Taylor, another Augusta native who has not yet qualified for the Masters, shot 76 to fall nine shots behind. ... Erik Compton, who has had two heart transplant, started the third round at 4 under par. He shot 80 and dropped to 69th place. ... Masters champion Phil Mickelson had a 69 and was at 2-under 214. He plans another two-day trip to Augusta National before going to the Houston Open in his final tune up.