He was happy to see it land in the bunker, some 80 feet from the flag. Then came a long blast from the sand to 6 feet, and a par save that felt like a birdie. It was like that all day at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, only one thing didn’t change.
Laird never surrendered the lead.
The 28-year-old Scot made it through an up-and-down day with a 2-under 70 and had a two-shot lead over Spencer Levin.
“That was a big one,” Laird said of his par save on the 17th, one hole after a two-shot swing gave him a cushion. “I was lucky. I wasn’t sure if it was going to make it over the water, to be honest, when it was in the air. And I was lucky to make it over, and then that was a big up-and-down.”
Now comes the hard part.
Laird was at 11-under 205. This is the third time in his last 12 stroke-play events on the PGA Tour that he has been atop the leaderboard going into the final round, and the last two ended with someone else celebrating. At The Barclays, it was Matt Kuchar hitting a 7-iron to 30 inches to beat him in a playoff. In Las Vegas, it was Jonathan Byrd making a hole-in-one to win a three-man playoff.
Levin, who had to scramble for bogey on the easy 16th to fall two shots behind, put his troubles behind him quickly and finished off a 71 to get into the final group.
That’s not to say it will be a two-man race.
With wind in the forecast, six players are separated by five shots. That includes two players who appear to be getting closer to their first PGA Tour win, Steve Marino and Rickie Fowler.
It does not include Tiger Woods.
The six-time Bay Hill winner had another Saturday swoon, trading an eagle and birdies with bogeys and a double bogey that sent him to a 2-over 74 and left him 10 shots out of the lead.
“Hopefully, the wind blows tomorrow and I can post a good one,” Woods said. “And I can get a little momentum going into Augusta.”
Others are simply trying to get there, starting with Levin. Nothing short of a victory would send him to the Masters.
“That’s in the back of my mind, for sure,” Levin said. “That’s a nice thing to be thinking about – hopefully, try not to think about it, though. You have to think about what you’re doing here.”
Laird ran off three straight birdies early in the round to build a four-shot lead. Four holes later, Levin pulled within one shot and they were tied for the lead with three holes to play.
That’s when it turned in the Scot’s favor.
Laird got up-and-down for birdie from just right of the green on the 16th, while Levin was in trouble from the start. He drove into the trees, chipped out into a bunker and then pulled his third shot into the water. He had to make a 6-foot putt to escape with bogey on the easiest hole at Bay Hill.
“I know tomorrow I have to concentrate hard … and hopefully I’ll wind up on top,” Laird said.
He went to Augusta National to practice a few weeks ago and looks forward to the Masters. But that can wait. The winner at Bay Hill gets a trophy, a big paycheck and an audience with the King, tournament host Arnold Palmer.
“This is a pretty good tournament to win, too,” he said.
But there is much work ahead of him, especially if the gusts return to a course that already is demanding.
Bubba Watson, a winner already this year at Torrey Pines, holed a 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th to finish off a 68. He was at 7-under 209, four shots behind. Also at 209 was Marino, who already has had two good chances at his first PGA Tour win this year.
Fowler, dressed in hot pink that elicited cries of “Pretty Rickie” from a large, sun-baked gallery, overcame a double bogey on the sixth when he drove into the water and shot 70 to stay in the game at 6-under 210, along with David Toms (69).
Woods started poorly, going from the left rough to the bunker and missing a 7-foot par putt on the opening hole. He had one stretch that went birdie-bogey-eagle, and with the leaders getting away from him, went after the flag on the 13th and hit along the rocks. He wound up missing a 5-footer to take double bogey, then hit a fat shot from the bunker into the water on the 16th to make bogey.
He has yet to break 70 in the third round this year.
“I made a few mistakes out there,” Woods said. “There was a point in the round I had to get more aggressive on 13 and paid the price for it. I figured I needed to shoot 3 or 4 under, and it backfired on me a little bit.”
He will complete a full year on tour without a victory. Sunday is his last round before the Masters.
Some others are simply trying to get to Magnolia Lane. Of the top 10 players on the leaderboard, four have yet to qualify. That includes Marc Leishman, who had a 66 to reach 5-under 211. Also at 211, six shots behind, were John Senden (68) and Charles Howell III, the Augusta native who was four shots out of the lead at one point until bogeys on two of his last four holes. He shot 73.
Levin figures to have the best chance at catching Laird.
“As good a chance as anybody except the guy right here,” he said, motioning to Laird.
DIVOTS: Vaughn Taylor, another Augusta native who has not yet qualified for the Masters, shot 76 to fall nine shots behind. … Erik Compton, who has had two heart transplant, started the third round at 4-under par. He shot 80 and dropped to 69th place. … Masters champion Phil Mickelson had a 69 and was at 2-under 214. He plans another two-day trip to Augusta National before going to the Houston Open in his final tune up.