Laird ties course mark to win in Texas

Martin Laird has spent the last six months on the driving range
looking for answers to his struggling game.

The Scottish golfer finally found what he was looking for, and
then some on Sunday — winning the Texas Open with a
final-round 9-under par 63 to overcome a resurgent Rory McIlroy and
some of the world’s best along the way.

Laird, who entered the week 161st on the money list, tied the
course record with his bogey-free effort. He punctuated the overall
14-under effort with birdies on the final three holes, earning a
trip to next week’s Masters and plenty of confidence in a recent
swing change along the way.

“I came in here quietly confident, even though my record this
year has been poor to say the least,” Laird said. “But golf’s a
funny game; doesn’t matter what you did two weeks ago. It turns
around pretty quickly.”

The win was Laird’s third on the PGA Tour, his first since the
Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2011.

He entered the week having missed four of eight cuts this year
following a swing change last September, including a missed cut at
last week’s Houston Open. However, he shot a second-round 65 in
that event after a four-hour range session — providing plenty
of confidence that his game was finally starting to come
together.

It did just that Sunday, and how.

Laird began the day four shots behind leader Billy Horschel, but
he birdied five of his first eight holes to immediately jump into
contention. His 7-foot birdie putt on No. 8 — one of only 22
putts in the round – put him into a tie with Horschel at 10
under.

He then held off a hard-charging McIlroy over the last few
holes, including a stunning up-and-down for birdie out of the
fairway bunker and off the fringe on No. 17. He capped the win with
a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-5 18th.

McIlroy, the world’s No. 2, began the day at 6 under before
posting a 66 to finish two shots back and finish second — his
best finish of the year.

Horschel shot a 1-under 71 to finish in a tie for third with Jim
Furyk and Charley Hoffman.

Furyk eagled the par-5 18th from 104 yards out to jump into
third. The former U.S. Open winner had only four holes of practice
on the Greg Norman-designed Course at TPC on Wednesday before rain
washed him out, but he posted a final-round 69 to close out a
steady week.

Horschel, who led after the second and third rounds, was unable
to match the low rounds of his competitors and finished with a
1-under 71. The Florida native, who was second at last week’s
Houston Open and was borderline defiant earlier in the week about
his chances of competing against former major winners, was seeking
his first PGA Tour win.

“Everyone’s going to have butterflies,” Horschel said. “I don’t
care if it’s Tiger Woods or Joe Schmo at the golf course; you’re
going to have butterflies, and you have to learn how to deal with
it.”

McIlroy, who only entered the tournament late last week, closed
to within a shot of Laird when he sank a 13-foot birdie putt on the
204-yard par-3 16th to reach 11 under.

The former world No. 1 had struggled with his consistency for
much of the year entering the week, but he made seven birdies on
Sunday. It was exactly the kind of competitive final round McIlroy
envisioned when he signed up in advance of next week’s first major
of the year.

He continued to struggle off the tee, hitting just seven of 14
fairways for the third time this week Sunday. However, he needed
only 26 putts – by far his best effort on the greens for the
week.

“I feel like my game’s in really good shape going into next
week,” McIlroy said. “A round like that gives me a nice bit of
confidence.

“I thought if I got to 12 under today that might have been good
enough, but Martin just played too good and holed so many putts. It
was hard to keep up.”

While McIlroy’s primary focus throughout the week was on
preparing for Augusta National, Laird couldn’t have imagined when
the week began that he would join the former world No. 1 next
week.

Laird earned this third straight trip to the Masters with his
win, which he closed out with three straight birdies. That included
the surprising up-and-down on No. 17 and finishing with a 15-foot
putt for birdie on 18 — clinching a share of the course
record, which was set in last year’s opening round by Matt
Every.

He became the first PGA Tour player to earn a trip to the
Masters in the last week before the tournament since Johnson Wagner
won the Houston Open in 2008.

Laird played at Augusta National the last two years following
his win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2011, finishing 20th
two years ago and 57th last year.

Well-known name or not, Laird overcame some of the world’s best
on Sunday.

“I know how good Rory is, but it doesn’t matter if it’s Rory or
Jim or Billy, if someone’s behind me making birdies like they were,
I know I’ve got to keep making birdies,” Laird said. “That was a
pretty strong leaderboard at the top there.”