Planet Golf — 05 March 2021 by GW staff and news services
DeChambeau goes long, short for win

ORLANDO, Fla. — Bryson DeChambeau received a text message Sunday morning from Tiger Woods to keep fighting, good advice for a final round that turned out to be the toughest at Bay Hill in 41 years.

Inspiration from Arnold Palmer is everywhere, and DeChambeau was particularly drawn to the King’s motto to play boldly.

DeChambeau needed every bit of that Sunday to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational, playing the final 17 holes without a bogey, entertaining thousands with another monstrous drive over the water and delivering one last par with a 5-foot putt on the final hole for a one-shot victory over Lee Westwood.

He looked dapper in his tam o’shanter cap and red cardigan sweater that goes to the winner.

“I think this red cardigan is not only for Mr. Palmer, but I would say it’s a little bit for Tiger, as well, knowing what place he’s in right now,” DeChambeau said.

Woods, recovering from serious leg injuries from his single-car crash in Los Angeles two weeks ago, would have witnessed quite a show in blustery conditions, fast fairways and greens to quick they looked almost white.

DeChambeau closed with a 71, matching the low score of the final round in which no one broke 70 on Sunday at Bay Hill for the first time since 1980.

Westwood, who turns 48 next month, was up to the task.

Never mind that DeChambeau’s rocket over the water on the 565-yard sixth hole was 168 yards beyond Westwood. Their second shots were only 6 feet apart and both made birdie.

Westwood fought to the end. He fell out of a share of the lead with a three-putt bogey from 40 feet on the 14th. Just as critical was failing to make birdie on the par-5 16th with a wedge for his second shot from the fairway, and DeChambeau having to scramble for par.

“You can’t want for more than that. I thought we had a really good battle,” Westwood said. “It was never really more than one (shot) all day, and there were tough conditions out there. It was a day for playing sensible and hanging on.”

They were never separated by more than one shot over the final 15 holes. DeChambeau finished at 11-under 277.

The long ball came in handy for DeChambeau, as much with the putter as the driver. He holed a 40-foot birdie putt on the fourth hole to regain a share of the lead. More critical was the 50-foot par putt he made on No. 11 to stay one ahead.

“Knowing what I know now, it’s obviously the shot of the day for me,” he said.

Westwood tied him with a 30-foot birdie putt on the par-5 12th, only to give it back with a three-putt on the 14th. The tournament turned on the par-5 16th, where it was Westwood who had the advantage.

DeChambeau’s drive went up against the lip of a bunker and he had to lay up short of the water. Westwood had 158 yards and hit a poor wedge that came up short of the green. He chipped nicely, except that it rolled out 6 feet by the hole on the lightning-quick greens and he missed the birdie for a chance to tie.

DeChambeau took the one-shot lead to the 18th and hit his most important drive of the day — in the fairway. Westwood’s tee shot settled in a divot, and he did well to get it on the green and two-putt from 65 feet. DeChambeau’s birdie putt slid by some 5 feet and he shook his arms in celebration when the par putt dropped.

Westwood closed with a 73, not a bad score considering the average of 75.49 was the highest for a final round since 1980.

Corey Conners stayed in the mix until the very end. The Canadian holed a 15-foot eagle putt on the 16th to get within one shot, only to find a bunker on the par-3 17th and miss a 6-foot par putt. With a bogey on the final hole, he shot 74 to finish alone in third.

Jordan Spieth was part of a four-man race on the front nine and briefly tied for the lead with a birdie on the par-5 sixth. That turned out to be his last birdie of the day. He took bogey on three of his last four holes for a 75, dropping him into a three-way tie for fourth with Andrew Putnam (71) and Ricky Werenski (73).

For Spieth, it was his third top-five finish in his last four events.

DeChambeau rose to No. 6 in the world with his ninth victory worldwide, and he became the first player this season with multiple victories, to go along with his U.S. Open title in September. It matched the longest it took for a multiple winner on the PGA Tour since 1969. Nick Price won his second title in the 21st week of the season in 1994.

Rory McIlroy, who started four shots out of the lead, was never in the mix. He came undone on the par-5 sixth, where he hit two tee shots into the water and then hit the fairway, green and made the putt to salvage double bogey. He shot 76.

Third Round

ORLANDO, Fla. – Jordan Spieth is in his ninth season on the PGA TOUR, but he had never played the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard, nor seen Bay Hill Golf Club and Lodge before this week. Starting his Saturday four shots behind leader Corey Conners, Spieth said he’d gladly have signed up for a 68 and never left the locker room.

But man, what a wild day of fun and adventure he would have missed.

There were aces (two), including one by Spieth on the second hole. There was a Happy Gilmore moment on the par-5 sixth, as Bryson DeChambeau gave the fans what they wanted and took a mighty swat at the green. (He didn’t get there, but finished safely to the right, 370 yards away, leaving only a 58-degree wedge from 70 yards for his approach on the 531-yard double dogleg.)

Oh, and when the sun rises Sunday, a 47-year-old Englishman will be atop the leaderboard. Lee Westwood, who made eight birdies and an eagle and shot his best-ever round at Bay Hill, a 7-under 65, moved to 11-under 205. He leads Bryson DeChambeau (68) and Corey Conners (71) by two, and Spieth (68) and Keegan Bradley (64) by three.

“Everybody keeps asking me when I’m going to the Seniors Tour,” said Westwood. “So I think they’re trying to get rid of me.”

Westwood, a former World No. 1 and a winner of 25 tournaments on the European Tour, first played at Bay Hill in 1998, tying for 13th. His fond memory of that first Sunday wasn’t his double-double finish, but sticking around the Bay Hill locker room deep into the evening drinking vodka and tonics with Arnold Palmer and that year’s champion, Ernie Els.

Saturday he finished 3-3-3, with an eagle at the par-5 16th (7-iron to 32 feet) and birdie at the demanding 18th (7-iron to 28 feet.) Westwood rolled in 128 feet, 11 inches of putts – more than his first two rounds combined. Not to say Westwood is old, but when he made his first Bay Hill start, Spieth was 4, and in kindergarten. Westwood’s first pairing at Bay Hill was with two-time Arnold Palmer Invitational champion Gary Koch, whose last start here was nearly two decades ago. (Koch is now in the booth for NBC’s API telecast.)

Westwood last won on the PGA TOUR in 2010, in Memphis, but captured the European Tour’s 2020 Race to Dubai, is still 39th in the world, and says his lighter approach these days helps fend off any nerves. Is he surprised to be in this position?

“I’m not surprised, no, because I haven’t lost any of my length and I haven’t lost any of my enthusiasm to go and work, and work in the gym,” Westwood said. “My nerves are still intact, I still get into contention and enjoy it rather than kind of back off.”

Speaking of “back off,” DeChambeau showed none of that on Saturday. He stepped to the par-5 sixth hole like a boxer stepping into the ring, and the enthusiastic gallery at the tee had but one message for him: GO FOR IT!!! And so he did, pulling out driver, ripping a missile that carried some 345 yards over water and finished 370 yards from where he was standing. DeChambeau triumphantly raised his arms high in the air as the ball was in flight. He knew he’d crushed it. His reaction? Huge smile. Pure joy.

Oh, man, I felt like a kid again, for sure,” DeChambeau, the 2020 U.S. Open champion, said. “It was exciting. Especially when you pull it off and you know … 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!”

That he did. Spieth, winless since 2017 but enjoying a nice resurgence in the past month, injected his own 10,000 watts into the day by starting out with a birdie and an ace. He holed a 5-iron at the 222-yard second hole, his ball pitching on the right edge of the green and turning left toward the flagstick. On the third tee, Spieth was so fired up from his 3-under start that he promptly ripped a tee shot left and into the water. (He still, somehow, made a par.)

“Luckily I made some putts to make up for that, but it was almost like kind of first shot at the Ryder Cup kind of feeling, where you’re just so amped up,” Spieth said. “You have to hit so many controlled shots here and when it gets a little windy it’s so hard to hit the fairways, and I really struggled on the front nine with that.”

He holed a bunker shot for birdie at the seventh and moved to 6 under for his round with birdies at 10 and 12, but gave two shots back with bogeys on Bay Hill’s back-nine par-3 holes. By day’s end, he was signing for 68, which was just fine, and will be one of a handful of players who will begin Sunday with a chance. Nine players are within five of Westwood’s lead.

“Yeah, it was just another round that, unfortunately, wasn’t boring for me,” Spieth said. “I’m trying to have boring rounds.”

Sorry, but Saturday was anything but that. It might not have pleased Spieth, but the limited fans in attendance had no qualms at all.

SECOND ROUND

ORLANDO, Fla. — Corey Conners spent more time grinding out pars than chasing birdies, and that proved to be the right recipe Friday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard as Bay Hill began to bake under a warm sun.

Conners surged into the lead with a 25-foot eagle putt on the par-5 16th hole — his second eagle on that hole in two days — for a 3-under 69 and a one-shot advantage over former Bay Hill winner Martin Laird (67).

Rory McIlroy was poised to at least join Conners in the afternoon until he hit a couple of loose drives that cost him one shot when he could only pitch back to the fairway, leading to bogeys. He closed with five straight pars for a 71 that he figures could have been worse.

“It could have been the round that I could have shot 74 or 75. I got in with 71 and pretty happy with that,” McIlroy said.

He was two shots behind, along with Viktor Hovland and Lanto Griffin, who each had a 68.

Jordan Spieth remained in the mix going into the weekend, which is becoming a regularity in the last month as he tries to end more than three years without winning. Spieth hit a superb flop shot over the bunker to a fast green that rolled out to a foot to escape with par and a 69.

Conners was at 9-under 135, and now everyone braces for the weather.

The forecast featured plenty of rain Saturday, which figures to make Bay Hill play longer and tougher, while also keeping the greens from getting as crusty as they were last year when Tyrrell Hatton won with a closing 74.

“We’ll just see what happens and be ready for anything,” Conners said.

Hatton at least gets a chance on the weekend. He opened with a 77 and was 10 shots better Friday, a 67 that allowed him to make the cut with one shot to spare.

Also making the cut were both Ryder Cup captains — Padraig Harrington of Ireland with a 74 to be nine shots behind, Steve Stricker with a 71 that left him one shot better.

Conners, whose lone PGA TOUR victory came two years ago at the Valero Texas Open, saved par seven times during his round, the exception coming at the par-3 second hole when he came up short of the green, some 80 feet away, and wound up missing his par putt from 10 feet.

Otherwise, the Canadian has been solid. This is only the second time he has held the lead going into the weekend, the other occasion at the Valspar Championship in 2018 when his bid to go wire-to-wire ended with a 77 in the final round.

“I haven’t really been in this position a lot, but I have a lot of confidence in my game and feeling really relaxed the last few days, so try and keep that going,” Conners said. “I feel like I have a lot of energy. I had an off week last week and really excited for the weekend.”

Laird has recent success winning on a familiar course. In the fall, he ended seven years without a victory by winning in Las Vegas, scene of his first PGA TOUR victory in 2009. He won at Bay Hill in 2011 on a final round so tough a 75 was enough to get the job done.

Now there are plenty of others in the mix.

U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau overcame consecutive bogeys at the end of his front nine and shot 71. He was three shots behind. Another shot back were Spieth, Justin Rose (68), Sunjae Im (70) and Paul Casey (69).

Hatton wasn’t the only player who saw a big improvement. Jazz Janewattananond of Thailand had the low round of the tournament with a 65, which was 10 shots better than his first round.

Jason Day looked to be in much better shape than seven shots behind. He played in the morning, had a pair of birdies and came to the 16th, the easiest at Bay Hill. He lost his tee shot to the right and had to use binoculars and the zoom lens of a camera to make sure the ball stuck in the tree was his.

That led to a double bogey, and he took another double bogey on the 18th hole by taking four to get down from a bunker.

“A little unfortunate that it got stuck. It was literally in a nest,” Day said. “So I think mama birdy is going to come back and find another egg there.”

FIRST ROUND

ORLANDO, Fla. — Bay Hill was bustling Thursday. The fans were limited in numbers but they all wanted the same dose of entertainment provided by Rory McIlroy and Bryson DeChambeau.

First it was McIlroy, slowly feeling better about his game, and with good reason. Starting with a 55-foot putt on the par-3 second hole, he ran off five straight birdies for a share of the lead with Corey Conners in the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard at 6-under 66.

In the group behind McIlroy was DeChambeau, who has been contemplating a shot across the water to cut the 528-yard sixth hole down to size by going for the green. This was not the day with a slight breeze into his face, so the U.S. Open champion had some fun. He took out an iron, and then hit a conservative tee shot (309 yards) to the middle of the fairway.

It was a boring birdie, his third in a row, and he opened with a 67.

“There was a high expectation level of me trying to go for the green there, and it was a little pressure that I wasn’t expecting,” DeChambeau said. “But no, it was fun. The crowds were great with it. I pulled out an iron as a joke off the tee box. And for me, it was just too much off of the right and more into the wind than anything.”

In the group with DeChambeau was Jordan Spieth, making his debut at Bay Hill, and producing high adventure in a 70 that left him satisfied he remained on track — and irritated hitting off the toe of his driver and into the water on No. 6.

Even having to hit his third from the tee, he salvaged bogey with a 25-foot putt and made a 35-foot birdie on the next hole.

“Definitely proud of the way I responded, but the way I putted today, certainly would have liked a lower number,” Spieth said. “But it all just comes down to one shot for me today.”

Conners played in the afternoon and was 6 under through seven holes, capped off by an eagle on the par-5 16th. He took the lead with birdie on the par-5 sixth, but finished with a three-putt bogey from 60 feet to fall into a tie with McIlroy.

Jason Kokrak opened with a 68. Of the 60 players who teed off in the morning, only six broke 70. Defending champion Tyrrell Hatton shot a 77, while past Bay Hill winner Francesco Molinari took a step back from his progress with a 78.

McIlroy wasn’t too happy with his game after missing the cut — a rarity for him these days — at Riviera, then not having ideal practice sessions. He still managed some improvement last week in the World Golf Championships event, and saw even better results Thursday.

Most pleasing was seeing the ball go where and how he wanted it. He made three of his birdies on par 3s, the strength of Bay Hill. What stood out was a pair of 5-irons into the wind on the 14th and 17th holes, both tight draws, flighted the way he wanted to about 15 feet.

“Those shots last week that I was trying to hit were missing the target 20 yards left,” he said. “So it was nice to just see them coming out in the window I was anticipating.”

He said it was his best round of the year, and it helps being at Bay Hill, where McIlroy had a victory and no finish worse than a tie for sixth the last four years. He has seen enough of Tiger Woods’ eight victories in the Arnold Palmer Invitational to appreciate how to attack.

“He played it very conservatively. He took care of the par 5s. And that was usually good enough to get the job done,” McIlroy said. “So sort of take a little bit of a leaf out of his book.”

He only made birdie on two of the par 5s, going long on the 16th and having to lay up on the 12th from a fairway bunker.

Through it all, it was the activity outside the ropes at Bay Hill that stood out.

The Arnold Palmer Invitational was the last PGA TOUR event that had a full complement of fans, one week before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down golf. The tournament is allowing 25% of capacity — roughly 5,000 fans a day — and when they are watching some of golf’s bigger draws such as McIlroy, DeChambeau and Spieth, it feels even larger.

All were wearing masks.

“It’s nice to hear some cheers and a little bit of energy from the fans,” Martin Laird said after a 69. “It was fun to play in front of a crowd again.”

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