Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 6, 2022

The Last Man Standing At Brutal Bay Hill

A NOTE TO READERS:  On Sports and Life will be taking some time off for travel starting later this week.  Barring an unlikely breakthrough in the negotiations between MLB franchise owners and the Players Association, there will be no post either this Thursday or next Sunday.  The regular schedule will resume on Thursday, March 17.  As always, thanks for your support.

The golf course giveth; the golf course taketh away.  Every weekend golfer knows that is as true as any biblical maxim, but the vagaries of the ancient game apply not just to struggling high handicappers.  Even the world’s best can experience the emotional whiplash of sublime highs and desperate lows during a round, sometimes even from one hole to the next.  Such was the case on Sunday, as those at the top of a constantly changing leader board chased the elusive prize of a PGA Tour victory through the final round of this year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.

The tournament has been played at the Bay Hill Club since 1979, five years after Palmer bought the sprawling layout that threads its way through an upscale residential development in the Orlando suburbs.  Bay Hill is a fine and challenging course, a testament to the design skills of architect Dick Wilson, who while not as famous as some of his mid-20th century contemporaries, built courses that have stood the test of golf’s technological advancements, including Doral’s Blue Monster and Cog Hill’s Dubsdread.  But a glance at the winning scores of Bay Hill champions is a reminder that a golf course’s challenge is a factor of not just design, but also conditioning and conditions.  Payne Stewart set the tournament record with a 20-under par total when he won in 1987, and since then winners with familiar names like Couples, Woods, and McIlroy have flirted with that mark.  But Woods, who has won the Palmer an astonishing eight times, has also triumphed by posting a total of just 5-under, and two years ago Tyrrell Hatton’s 4-under score was enough to give the Englishman a one-stroke victory.

This year it was clear before the first tee shot was struck early Thursday morning that Bay Hill’s superintendent had set up a severe test.  During a televised preview of the tournament, one of the Golf Channel’s announcers stood in the rough and casually dropped a golf ball, which promptly disappeared in the thick and gnarly grass as surely as if she had tossed it into of the course’s many water hazards.  Then the central Florida weather was unusually windy for the four days of the tournament, conditions that turned the already difficult challenge into a struggle for even the elite of the PGA Tour.  The breezes firmed up the greens, making them hard and lightning fast, while also making club selection more complex and pushing slightly errant shots even farther off target.

Despite all that, Rory McIlroy started off brilliantly, firing a 7-under 65 to claim the round one lead.  Had he simply maintained that total relative to par through the remaining three rounds, McIlroy would have claimed his second Bay Hill title.  Instead, after an even par second round, he gave all those shots and one more back over the weekend with a pair of 76’s.  When McIlroy idled on Friday, 24-year-old Viktor Hovland climbed the leader board with a second-round 66 to go with an opening 69 that left him two clear of the field at 9-under heading into the weekend.  Just like his fellow European Ryder Cupper, had Hovland simply returned even par numbers on Saturday and Sunday, he would have won for the fourth time in his still young PGA Tour career. 

But Hovland candidly admitted during an interview that the tough conditions, which put a premium on finesse around the greens rather than monster drives and sublime iron play, didn’t play to his advantage.  Sure enough, by the tournament’s end he had lost more that two strokes per round to the field by the Tour’s putting metric.  Even worse, for the week Hovland converted just four of thirteen sand save chances, a shockingly low percentage for a touring pro.  Yet after a two-putt birdie on the par-5 16th, Hovland stood on Bay Hill’s 17th tee at 5-under for the tournament, tied for the lead late Sunday afternoon.  But when his tee shot at the par-3 landed in a greenside bunker one felt certain that position was about to change, and when several minutes later he lined up a birdie putt from inside twenty feet at the 18th that would have pushed him back into a tie, observant fans were equally convinced that the effort would be in vain. 

Hovland owed his status on the tee of the tournament’s penultimate hole to Gary Woodland, who was the unquestioned winner of the dubious prize for most glaring example of how quickly one’s fortunes on the links can change.  Woodland trailed when he teed off on the 16th, and pushed his drive well right, into a waste area of hardpacked dirt and coquina shells.  But with a clear angle to the green, and free of Bay Hill’s high rough, Woodland took a daring risk, for which he was well rewarded.  Despite the danger of slipping on the hard surface, he went for the par-5 green with his second shot, and the blast settled on the putting surface, twenty-four feet below the hole.  Then Woodland rolled the putt into the heart of the cup for an eagle-3 and the lead. 

His next shot, from the 17th tee, was every bit as bold as Woodland’s last full swing, but with a lesser result that ultimately made all the difference.  Aiming at the flag, which was tucked on the back right corner of the green, Woodland came up just short, his ball landing in a bunker.  Then, mere minutes after ascending to golf’s heights, Woodland plunged to its depths.  His first sand shot failed to clear the lip.  His second stopped nine feet from the hole.  His bogey putt missed, and when it did, all the accomplishments of the 16th hole had been thoroughly undone by the 17th.

Which left Scottie Scheffler, the player who shared the lead with Hovland back on the tee.  He did so not because of a dramatic run of birdies, or an opportunistic eagle.  Rather Scheffler, who broke through for his first PGA Tour win less than a month ago at the Phoenix Open, had battled back against Bay Hill’s brute force by constantly saving par.  The most dramatic of those efforts had just played out.  At the par-4 15th Scheffler’s drive was in the trees to the left of the fairway.  From there he could barely advance the ball with his second shot.  But he managed to find the green with his third and rolled in a 20-footer to pencil in his 4.  Then his tee shot on 16 went the other way, landing in the right rough just outside a bunker which Scheffler had to stand in for his second.  Again, he could barely advance the ball, ultimately needing four shots to reach the green.  But when his 6-foot putt found the bottom of the cup, Scheffler had another par. 

Soon after those two improbable saves, Scheffler was in the lead alone, and shortly after that, with an entirely appropriate final round of even-par 72, he had his second PGA Tour victory.  Because some days, even for the pros, par is good enough.   

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