ORLANDO, Fla. – Be it a coronation or collision course, Adam Scott simultaneously added a level of intrigue to the upcoming Masters and a dollop of suspense heading into what was shaping up to be a victory lap on Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Unlike his swing, silver screen looks and financial portfolio, Scott’s Saturday wasn’t picture perfect like it had been for his first two trips around Arnie’s place. The Australian bogeyed his opening hole, just his fourth misstep of the week, and added another at the fifth.
Before Scott reached the halfway hut his seemingly insurmountable lead had been trimmed from a touchdown (seven strokes) to start the day to a single shot.
The tournament, and the tantalizing prospect of overtaking Tiger Woods atop the World Golf Ranking before the year’s first major championship in a fortnight, which seemed a foregone conclusion, finally had a measure of drama.
Scott, however, would birdie Nos. 6, 10, 13, 15 and 16 for a 1-under 71 and a field goal advantage over a resurgent Keegan Bradley heading into Sunday’s finale.
The world No. 2, 3 up and cruising is not the best-case scenario for Bradley, et al, but at least the pack has a reason to consider a second option.
“I like the underdog role,” said Bradley, whose 66 tied for the round of the day with Matt Every and put him in the hunt for his first title since the 2012 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
It wasn’t Mercer stunning Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but given the alternative Bradley will take what he can get.
“My goal was to go out and cut into the lead. I like being in this position,” said Bradley, who will be paired with Scott on Sunday. “I knew Adam wouldn’t come back to me. I knew I had to shoot a really low number today.”
It may take another really low number and some help from Scott to deny him his 11th Tour title.
Even on his worst day of the week, Scott hit 12 of 14 fairways and 13 of 18 greens in regulation. The difference on Day 3 was his putter (31 putts) and a golf course that had played like the softer side of Bay Hill for the first 36 holes.
And if the defending Masters champion was disturbed by his suddenly sloppy play he wasn’t letting on. If anything, Scott figured to use his door-opening 71 as a reason to improve.
For too long, Scott figured, he’s let victory chances slide and now, in the self-described prime of his career, he has no plans to go quietly into any more Sunday nights without a trophy.
“I’m hungry to win,” he said. “I just don’t think you get the chance that much, because there are so many guys playing well. If I only win one tournament in the peak time in my career it’s no different than the rest of my career so far.
“I’ve got to start closing at a better rate.”
This from a player who has collected four international titles in the last 12 months, including 2 of 3 during his victory lap through Australia last fall, and established himself as the game’s most consistent player.
As if that wasn’t enough, Scott also has experience on his side. Of the six players within five strokes of the lead only Bradley and Chesson Hadley (T-5), who claimed his first Big League title at the opposite-field Puerto Rico Open earlier this year, have won on Tour.
Still, for an event devoid of drama for much of the first 36 – that is other than Kevin Na’s run in with father time and a few overly expressive fans on Friday (In an aside, when asked on Saturday if he drives fast, Na replied, “Oh, I drive fast. I have a Lamborghini.”) – the alternative would be a Sunday sans any excitement.
On Saturday, Bradley, with an assist from Scott, breathed life into an event that had the forlorn look of a boat race when the Australian opened with a course-record-tying 62 on Friday.
But on Sunday Bradley & Co. will likely need more help from Scott – another slow start, more missed opportunities, more daylight – to make a game out of it, and for a player who in another life was considered by some too soft, those types of gifts no longer seem realistic.
“My mindset is to go out there and put the foot down early, unlike today, and extend the lead and make it very difficult for anyone to catch me,” Scott said.
It’s not over at Bay Hill, but it’s very close.