ORLANDO, Fla. – Ernie Els is atop the leaderboard at Bay Hill and not sure how he got there.
He’s not alone.
Davis Love III didn’t make a par until his 10th hole Friday in the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He had six bogeys and still wound up with a share of the 36-hole lead on the PGA Tour for the first time in seven years.
Els was 3 feet from being under water and out of the hunt until he salvaged an unlikely par, spurring him to four birdies in a five-hole stretch and in great shape going into the week. Ben Curtis bogeyed his first two holes and shot his best round of the year.
One shot out of the lead was Phil Mickelson, who hit two balls in the water off the tee and one ball in the hole from the fairway.
“It’s been kind of weird, but a little surprised that I’m in the lead,” Els said after his 3-under 69. “But you know, we’re there. It should be an interesting weekend, and obviously looking forward to it.”
Love had seven birdies, two of those when he holed out a chip and a bunker shot, and settled for a 71. Curtis shot 31 on the back nine on his way to a 67, while D.J. Trahan had a 68.
They were at 7-under 137, one shot ahead of Mickelson (67), Retief Goosen (67) and Kevin Na (70).
Mickelson is starting to find his putting stroke at just the right time. The evidence came not so much from the round he shot at Bay Hill that put him into the thick of contention for the first time this year, but from a casual round earlier this week in the California desert.
He shot a 58, the lowest score of his life.
“How did you hear about that?” Mickelson said, unaware either that good news travels fast or that he had mentioned it moments earlier in an interview with British-based Sky Sport.
He made 12 birdies and an eagle at The Plantation Golf Club in Indio, Calif., which Fred Couples helped design. Mickelson went there because the greens are similar to Bay Hill. “I ended up getting the putter going there, as well, and shot 58, yeah. That was fun.”
Friday at Bay Hill was as wild as it was fun, and not just for Mickelson.
Love will remember the 35-foot birdie putt on the 15th, holing out for birdie from a deep bunker in front of the 17th green and chipping in for birdie in front of the seventh green. The ball in the water at No. 8 or the short par putt he missed on the 14th? Forgotten.
“If you would have said Wednesday night whenever I was leaving the course, ‘You’ll be 7 under after two days and right at the top of the leaderboard,’ I’d have taken it,” Love said. “It’s right where you want to be. You want to be in the hunt.”
Love needs a victory at Bay Hill or next week in the Houston Open to get into the Masters.
Mickelson has not come close to winning all year, so it was inspiring for him to get to 6 under. His round, however, was far more complicated than making a bunch of putts. It usually is with Mickelson, which is why Lefty could only laugh when asked if he found the day to be stressful or if that was just a typical round.
“I find that an interesting question because there’s some legitimacy to it,” Mickelson said. “I have a tendency to have up-and-down rounds like that. But it’s fun. I enjoy trying to create shots and hit shots and take on some of these pins and make birdies, and unfortunately, I tend to make a few mistakes at times.”
Starting on the back nine, he poured in three straight birdies from the 11th hole, then added a fourth the not-so-conventional way on the par-5 16th. Fans saw him lay up short of the water and hit a wedge that skipped up the big ridge and stop 3 feet away. Why lay up from inside 250 yards and get a clean look at the green?
“I fatted a hybrid,” he said, chunking the shot so badly that it worked out perfectly.
Indeed, putting saved his round, even if the biggest putts were for bogey. He drove into the water on No. 3 and had to make a 12-foot putt to limit the damage to a bogey, then drove into the water on the par-5 sixth and wound up making a 15-foot bogey putt.
“Those bogey putts were every bit as important as some of the other stuff,” Mickelson said.
The best of that other stuff came at No. 8, where Mickelson hit a wedge from 136 yards that landed short of the hole and dropped in for an eagle.
“You don’t expect that to happen,” he said. “You try to hit good shots and have birdie putts, but when one falls like that, it’s just a bonus.”
Love can relate. He now has holed four shots from off the green, which has compensated for some blunders.
He made six birdies on the back nine, where he started his round, only to kick himself over the three bogeys. Love did well to make bogey on No. 8 after hitting his approach into the water, although driving into a fairway bunker at No. 9 left him no hope of getting to the green, where he made his sixth bogey of the round.
Rarely does a player make six bogeys and stay in the lead.
“A little erratic,” Love said. “Made some pretty simple mistakes today that are a little more disappointing than yesterday’s mistakes, but again, I made a lot of nice putts, hit a lot of good shots, and obviously made a lot of birdies.”