Laird survives early collapse to win Bay Hill

Martin Laird overcame a stunning mini-collapse in Sunday’s final

round to win the Arnold Palmer Classic at Bay Hill.

The Scotsman went from a three-shot lead to a three-shot deficit

in a span of seven holes. He was three shots behind when he walked

off the 14th green, two shots ahead as he headed to the 17th tee.

After 18, he was receiving personal congratulations from Palmer

himself.

”That was a hell of a day,” Laird said. ”That was a tough

fight out there. It was a battle out there, but you know, it makes

it even sweeter at the end when I got this trophy.”

In the toughest final round on the PGA Tour this year, Laird was

strong at the end with two birdies and two clutch pars to close

with a 3-over 75, the highest final round by a winner in the

33-year history at Bay Hill.

That two-putt par on the 18th was just enough for a one-shot

victory over hard-luck Steve Marino, who lost three shots on two

plugged lies in bunkers over the last four holes. Marino followed a

double bogey on the par-3 17th with an all-or-nothing shot over the

water at the flag to 8 feet on the last hole for birdie and a

72.

”You just cannot afford to (waste) shots in the final round –

really, at any point in the tournament – if you want to win,”

Marino said after his third close call this year. ”Unfortunately

on 17, that’s exactly what I did. It came back to bite me.”

Laird, a 28-year-old who came to America to play college golf

and never left, became the first European to win at Bay Hill. He

now heads off to the Masters for the first major of the year,

having felt like he just won one.

Considering all the calamity, it felt as though the U.S. Open

have moved from June to March. No one in the last three groups

broke par, and those six players were a combined 19-over par.

For Laird, it turned out to be a remarkable revival. When he

pulled his approach from a fairway bunker into the water on No. 11

and made double bogey, he already was 5 over for the round. But

while he lost the lead, he never lost hope.

”I never thought about not winning,” Laird said. ”When I saw

I was three down, I didn’t have a choice. I had to start playing

some good golf. I had to make birdies. Steve was playing too good.

That was really the focus. It was trying to get this trophy.”

Laird needed some help from Marino, who played beautifully until

the last four holes.

Marino went at the flag on the 15th, tucked right behind the

bunker, and his ball plugged in the soft sand. He blasted out to 35

feet and made bogey. Then came the 17th, and a 6-iron that he

thought was good all the way until the crowd groaned.

He blasted out over the green, putted up the slope to 5 feet and

missed the bogey putt.

”I played so well all day, and you know, one hiccup on 17 cost

me the tournament,” he said.

Justin Rose closed with a 68 and tied for third with David Toms

and Marc Leishman, who needed to win to get into the Masters.

Tiger Woods, a six-time winner at Bay Hill, was poised for a

second straight top 10 until he made bogey from the bunker on the

17th and hit his approach into the water on No. 18 for double bogey

and a 72. In his final tournament before the Masters, Woods tied

for 24th, seven shots behind. Phil Mickelson dropped three shots on

the last five holes for a 73 to also finish in a tie for 24th.

Laird finished at 8-under 280, the highest winning score since

Ben Crenshaw shot 280 in 1993. Laird earned $1.08 million, and a

validation after tough playoff losses at The Barclays and in Las

Vegas late last year.

Spencer Levin, who played in the final group and started two

shots behind, shot 41 on the front nine and still was in the game

toward the end. He wound up with a 76 and tied for sixth.

Woods played a solid round until his bogey-double bogey finish.

Bay Hill completes a full year since his return from a sex scandal,

with not much to show for it – no wins, only three top 10s on the

PGA Tour and not once in serious contention on the back nine.

Such is the state of his game that the six-time Bay Hill winner

called this a ”very good week, and a week I needed to see.”

”It’s getting better every week I’ve played,” he said.