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Laird wins wild one at Arnold Palmer Invitational

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Until Sunday, most of Orlando’s infamous pileups and traffic jams all had occurred on Interstate 4.

But like many fender benders on Central Florida’s main highway, someone here at the Arnold Palmer Invitational had to walk away victorious on a day that produced heat, wind, difficult hole locations and firm, crispy greens.

There was plenty of rubbernecking too.

Perhaps then it was fitting that Martin Laird was the last man standing at Arnold Palmer’s beloved Bay Hill. The long-hitting Scot held the 54-hole lead, converted three key par putts on the first five holes of the final round, looked steady, then made double bogey on the 11th hole to fall back before rebounding down the stretch when everyone else faltered.

Proof Sunday was an awkward day? Laird walked off the 14th hole two shots off the lead then walked off the 16th hole two ahead.

Laird, 28, shot 70-65-70-75 for an 8-under-par 280 total to capture his second PGA Tour victory. Steve Marino again failed to collect his first Tour hardware when he coughed up the lead late with a double bogey on 17. He regained his composure and made birdie on the final hole but ended second at 281. Justin Rose, Marc Leishman and David Toms tied for third at 282.

The final-round 75 by Laird was the highest finish by a winner on the PGA Tour since Trevor Immelman won The Masters in 2008 with the same score. It’s the highest score by a winner in a non-major since Peter Lonard shot 75 to win the 2005 Heritage.

“I knew it was going to be this tough to win,” said Laird, who admits he’s already made goals of playing for Europe in the 2012 Ryder Cup. “I knew there was going to be someone playing well. It was a battle out there, but you know, it makes it even sweeter.”

Laird’s first Tour victory came two years ago at the Justin Timberlake Open in Las Vegas but he may be more remembered for his two near misses. Laird was one of the victims to Jonathan Byrd’s walk-off playoff ace at last year’s Justin Timerblake Open and he had the 2010 Barclays in the bag on the final hole but three-putted from inside 25 feet to back into a playoff he’d eventually lose to Matt Kuchar.

Putting, the thing that’s hurt him most in the past, was the key to victory this week. Laird made numerous par-saving attempts the first three days, and did so on Sunday in spades.

None were bigger than putts on 17 and 18. On the penultimate hole, Laird made a par putt from 5 feet to assure he’d take the lead into the home hole.

Once Marino made birdie at 18, Laird knew that he needed par to win. He drove the ball through the fairway into deep rough then hacked out to the front portion of the 18th green, 87 feet from the hole. Laird calmly stroked the putt to 3 feet and made the putt to claim the one-shot victory.

“I never thought about not winning,” Laird said. “That’s not to say I thought I knew I was going to win, but that was the focus. I was not going to let this one get away.”

Meanwhile, Marino’s woes continue. He now has collected 21 top-10 finishes in this, his fifth PGA Tour season, and is at the top of the discussion for Best Player on Tour Without a Victory.

This one was the closest of them all. Although the scorecard shows that Marino shot 72 on a day where par was a great score, his double bogey on the 17th should haunt him for some time. Holding a one-shot lead standing on the tee Marino hit 6-iron into a front greenside bunker that produced a nasty fried-egg lay. He blasted out to the back fringe and three-putted for double bogey.

Hand it to Marino, he had the moxie to make birdie from 8 feet on the difficult final hole to put pressure on Laird, but it wasn’t enough.

“I felt like I just played so well all day and just a couple bad breaks, and one bad putt was all it took to take me out of it,” Marino said. “I was real proud of the way I hung in there and hit two great shots into 18. If there’s any positive to draw on this, that definitely is a positive for sure.”

Marino, 31, seems to take the myriad close calls in stride but they’re starting to pile up like snow during a harsh Northeast winter. He’s now 0-for-4 with a 54-hole lead.

Two of the most recent hiccups have come this year. Marino finished second to Mark Wilson at the Sony Open and was two shots off the lead last month at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am standing on the 18th tee. He hit his drive in the bunker, chipped out and, trying to force eagle for the tie, blew his 4-iron third shot well into the water. He made triple-bogey 8 and tied for fourth.

While Marino has continued to put himself in position to win, Tiger Woods cannot say the same. For consecutive days he struggled to close out a round. On Saturday, he double bogeyed 13 and bogeyed 16. Sunday was worse. Woods was 3 under through 16 holes but finished bogey, double bogey to tie for 24th at Bay Hill, a place he’s owened for the better part of a decade with six victories.

This week didn’t produce the results he was looking for in his last tune-up before his quest begins for a fifth green jacket. Or did it?

“Especially today, I really hit the ball well and the things that we’re working on the last couple weeks felt comfortable,” Woods said. “I felt I was able to control just about every shot today.”

The old Woods used to be disappointed when he shot 68, the new one says he played well when he shoots 72.

Phil Mickelson will get another Masters tune-up this week at the Houston Open. He shot a final-round 73 and tied for 24th with Woods, but remains ranked behind him in the Official World Ranking (Woods is fifth, Mickelson sixth.)

In the end it was Laird, the Scot, standing with the hardware, which produced two firsts. It was the first time Laird met Arnold Palmer and it was the first time a European won here at Bay Hill.

Beats a pileup on I-4 any day.