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It might be the best Saturday round Lee Westwood has ever shot. Arnie would certainly have loved it as he watched the veteran Englishman take a one-shot lead into the final round.
But then, that late hero they called “The King” would have sat back in his favourite big chair in his clubhouse at Bay Hill and revelled in the entirety of the third round of Arnold Palmer Invitational that might just go unrivalled in drama for a moving day when it comes to regular PGA Tour events.
It featured a hole-in-one from Jordan Spieth and then Bryson DeChambeau holding up his arms, Rocky style, after he tried to drive the par-five green. He did not even make the putting surface. But DeChambeau celebrated as if he had.
“Oh, man, I felt like a kid again, for sure,” DeChambeau said. “It was exciting. It was almost like winning a tournament. I don't know. It's kind of the feeling I had, it was like, Oh, I did it. I got the same chills and feeling when I saw it clear and there was no splash, it was like, ’yes. I gave the fans what they wanted’.”
Rory McIlroy delivered the same shot, but so much more purely. They both claimed birdies on that hole, but then Dechambeau made progress, shooting a 68 to share second with Canadian Corey Connors on 10-under, one behind Westwood. McIlroy slipped to seven-under, four behind, with a par 72. That scenario is beginning to feel familiar as far as McIlroy is concerned.
“Yeah, it was tricky,” McIlroy said. “Greens got firm, the wind got up for the last few holes. I sort of felt similar to like I did yesterday, I just didn't feel quite as comfortable with the golf swing as I did on Thursday. But I hung in there again, it was a shame to bogey the last, but conditions are supposed to be tough tomorrow, so you get off to a decent start, hang in there. I'm not too far away, so if I can get off to a decent start, be maybe a couple under through five I feel like I'll have a decent chance.”
Westwood, 47, compiled eight birdies and an eagle in his 65. He birdied five holes going out and on the inward half there were three more birdies together with an eagle on the 16th where he holed a 35-footer.
“This is a course I've always felt comfortable on” Westwood said. “I'm seeing the lines well on the greens and rolling the ball well. I feel like there are birdie opportunities out there if you hit good shots. I’m looking forward to the last round, but I'm 48 in a month's time.”
“It just shows that I'm still still capable of playing well in these tournaments. I've been hitting the ball well and this course suits me a little bit more than last week did. I first came here in 1998. I fell in love with it, I played well that week, I was in the second to last group on Sunday. Obviously with the King's name attached to it, it's a very special trophy to lift. It’s funny, everybody keeps asking me when I'm going to the Seniors Tour so I think they're trying to get rid of me.”
What a day. It started with Tyrrell Hatton, the defending champion, fighting his way into contention with a 66 to reach six-under. The Englishman started with a 77 and was regarded as one of those defending champions who had done too much saying thank you for last year, and not bothered about this year. Underrate Hatton at your peril.
He is in touch and looking up. There is a final-day cast waiting to put on a classic. McIlroy wishes it to be as challenging as possible.
“I would like to see it as tough as it could play,” he said, as he looks for his first win in 15 months. “I'm actually happy that we didn't get that much rain today, because it means the greens stayed firm. With the wind up tomorrow, I think it will be a really good test and I feel like I need something like that to make up the shots that I need to make up.”
Second round recap: It is a myth that Lee Westwood is a Ryder Cup certainty - but he is out to make it true at Bay Hill
There seems to be a widespread misconception that Lee Westwood is a certainty to make an emotional Ryder Cup return in September, having missed out for the first time in 21 years in France last time.
And that overconfidence has everything to do with the 47-year-old’s remarkable achievement of winning a third European Tour order of merit title in Dubai in December - 20 years after his first.
The history book also backs up the notion as it shows that no European has ever lifted the Harry Vardon Trophy and not gone on to play in the next year’s match against the US. Indeed, just to top the money list invariably means that enough points have already been earned in the qualification list to ensure an automatic place. Except in 2020.
Due to the pandemic and the difficulty that certain nationalities encountered to play in the hastily rearranged events, the Tour understandably decided to freeze the points lists. So every result from June onwards - after the circuit started up again following three-months lockdown - did not count as far as it came to the Cup.
Someone was bound to be a victim of that decision and Westwood missed out on so many points and although he started 2021 - when the qualifying race resumed - in the top nine in the standings, it has hardly taken a huge downturn in form to see the world No 39 slipping out on to the outside. Suddenly he is facing up to the prospect of needing a wildcard from captain Padraig Harrington if he is to equal Sir Nick Faldo’s record with 11 appearances.
However, Westwood has announced, “I don’t want to have to rely on a pick from Padraig” and made it his mission to break back into the automatic placings by September. A second-round 71 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Friday took him to four-under and into contention going into the Bay Hill weekend. It was exactly what the former world No 1 required after a tie for 61 in the 71-man WGC field on Sunday.
“Last week was a bit of an eye opener,” Westwood said, after a battling one-under round featuring two birdies in the last four holes.
“I haven't played on a golf course with that kind of severity of greens for quite some time. And I struggled. I struggled mentally, really and I let it get the better of me. But this week, a little bit more orthodox golf course and one that I’ve played on in the past and I've got a pretty good idea and gameplan of getting around it and that showed today.” In fairness, The Concession course near Tampa left many of the pros with a headache, so much so that the circus left town having renamed the layout “The Concussion”. But Westwood is not the type simply to write off a bad experience and forget about it. Throughout his garlanded career, the Worksop man has put great stock in learning from his setbacks and after making the two-hour trip across Orlando, the evergreen veteran went to work.
“I sat down and analysed what went wrong and the conclusion I came up with was that my scrambling wasn't very good - I was 70th in scrambling, which I think was pretty much last,” he said. “So I worked quite a bit around the chipping green here and this is a different kind of short game test. “You get some out of the rough and then you're not really playing up too many sharp banks if you don't miss it in the wrong areas. I chipped one in today from the back of the 10th and generally my short game is pretty good when I miss greens. But I didn't miss too many.”
Westwood’s commitment to grabbing a place at Whistling Straits in September cannot be questioned. After missing The Players Championship for four years, Westwood will appear at Sawgrass next week, as he tries to reach up the necessary run of results. “It’s never been in remit to say ‘it’s my main goal to make the Ryder Cup’ because you should never think that far ahead,” he said. “You should break down each tournament and let all that happen in the background. If I do qualify for the team then I'm clearly good enough. That’s the way I'm playing it.”
First round recap: Five birdies in a row send Rory McIlroy flying towards the Masters
Rory McIlroy’s improved form leapt up a few well-timed notches in Orlando on Thursday, when he shot a 66 to share first-round lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
The Northern Irishman’s worrying missed cut in Los Angeles two weeks ago seemed from a different time altogether as he continued his love affair with Bay Hill.
In gusty conditions, McIlroy reeled off five birdies in succession – his second best streak ever in a dozen years competing on the PGA Tour – to hold the advantage alongside Canadian Casey Conners with McIlroy’s playing partner Bryson DeChambeau a stroke back.
“I feel like you don’t have to do anything special to shoot a good score here,” McIlroy said. “You can be really conservative off the tees if you want to be. The toughest thing about this course is the par threes and I played them in three under.
“This is pretty much my best round of 2021. I shot a 64 in Abu Dhabi, but that wasn’t perfect technically and I just feel like that after the work of the last few weeks, I felt more consistent today.”
McIlroy’s purple patch coming in (which was actually the front nine as he started on the 10th), was triggered by an outrageous 55-footer on the 212-yard second. That was followed by a 22-footer on the next, as his putter had one of the rounds in which it decided to live up to the rest of his game.
Early days, of course, but with a tie for sixth last week in the WGC in nearby Tampa, McIlroy is the obvious favourite to win a first tournament in 15 months. Particularly as he is wisely following the example of a player who has won around the late Arnold Palmer’s place a record eight times.
“I’ve watched Tiger [Woods] enough here over the years and he simply took care of the par fives, and that was usually good enough to get the job done,” he said. “I am taking a leaf out of his book.”
However, it was a wretched start for Englishman Tyrrell Hatton. The defending champion shot a five-over 77.