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Will Zalatoris loses lead down stretch as stage is set for scintillating Sunday at Bay Hill

ORLANDO, Fla. — Will Zalatoris was in command, bogey-free and turning the Arnold Palmer Invitational into a runaway.

But nobody gets too far these days at Bay Hill before the golf course trips them up.

Zalatoris exited the 18th hole battered, bruised and holding a tattered scorecard following a pair of double-bogeys on the final four holes. A five-shot lead became a two-deficit, with world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler and 36-hole co-leader Shane Lowry tied at 9-under-par 207 total.

“That’s just Bay Hill,” Zalatoris said. “It’s just such a beast.”

All is not lost for Zalatoris or a host of big-name players as a wild, windy, chaotic moving day set the stage for yet another scintillating Sunday at Bay Hill.

“I’m still in the ballgame, as frustrating as it is to finish up that way,” the 27-year-old said.

A battle of attrition or Arnold Palmer-like Sunday charge now could decide the 46th edition of his tournament at Bay Hill.

“I didn’t think anyone was going to run away with it,” said reigning U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark, who is a shot back at 8-under.

The past four API champions prevailed by a stroke, beginning with 2020 winner Tyrrell Hatton who carded a tournament-record-high 4-under-par 284. The two prior winners closed with 8-under 64s, including Rory McIlroy in 2018.

McIlroy pulled within striking distance at 5-under after his best-ever back nine at Bay Hill, a 6-under 30 to complete a Saturday 68.

McIlroy ignited his round with a 365-yard drive over a dogleg right and onto the green at the par-4 10th hole to set up two-putt from 60 feet for birdie. He then followed with birdies on Nos. 12, 13, 16, 17 and 18 to serve notice he will be in the Sunday mix.

The world’s No. 2 player will have to close ground with a foot on the gas but an eye on the road.

“You start chasing on this golf course, it can bite you pretty quickly,” he said. “You got to pick your spots and still be patient.”

World No. 1 Scheffler preached patience after he trailed by as many as six shots but ended tied for the lead.

A roller coaster round of 70 featured four bogeys and two birdies on his first 11 holes but four birdies and seven one-putts from there, validating his recent change to a mallet putter amid his highly publicized struggles on the greens.

Based on his 2022 victory with a score of just 5-under par, Scheffler is braced for a grind ahead.

“It was a lot of days like today, where it was just windy and gusty, and the greens are pretty much dead,” he said. “Tomorrow I think we’re going to see more of the same or more of what we saw today.”

Lowry is well familiar with breezy conditions in his native Ireland. On Saturday, he also showed mettle after consecutive bogeys to end his opening nine left him 5 shots back.

A birdie putt outside 30 feet on the par-3 17th highlighted his rally for a 70 to put into the final pairing with Scheffler.

“These are the reasons you get up out of bed in the morning, to get out and compete against the best players in the world,” he said. “I’m excited.”

Clark’s chance to play in the final pairing ended with a 5 on the par-4 18th hole. The bogey was the sole blemish on a back nine that began 3-3-3 (birdie-birdie-eagle) on Nos. 10, 11 and 12, a feat never performed since records were kept at Bay Hill until Lowry during Thursday’s opening round.

Clark needed the record run after double-bogeys to begin and end his front nine, leading him to slam his club into the 9th fairway turf.

“The one that really got me mad was on 9,” he said. “I missed the fairway by three yards, have a terrible lie, chip out to right in the middle of a really tough divot from 20 yards. Then my emotions got to me.

“I was able to collect myself and focus.”

The golfer best able to manage his emotions as much as his games will to walk away with a $4 million payday and one of the game’s most prestigious wins.

Expect Sunday to come down to 72nd hole.

“You have to be really patient and not let it get to you,” Clark said. “This tournament is more of a mental challenge than a physical one.”