ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Harris English knew what he was facing before he hit his opening tee shot of the second round. He already was nine shots behind Morgan Hoffmann, who played earlier and posted a 65 to lead the Arnold Palmer Invitational at 13-under 131.
And it was only Friday.
“It’s weird,” English said. “Usually on this golf course you shoot 1, 2, 3 under, you’re playing some good golf. This year is totally different.”
The greens are soft and receptive. The wind has been little more than a rumor. Scores are just numbers.
English hit a wedge to 10 feet and fired off three straight birdies, sprinkled three more during his round and picked up enough ground to stay in range.
“I knew coming into today you’ve got to make some birdies because everybody is under par, Morgan Hoffmann is sitting at 13 under and … look, you got to go get it.”
English has plenty of company.
Hoffmann set the pace by making nine birdies to extend his lead to three shots over English, Henrik Stenson and defending champion Matt Every, each of whom had a 66. Danny Lee played with Hoffmann and treated it like match play. If that were the case, Lee beat him 1 up. In the real tournament, Lee had a tournament-best 64 and only made up one shot. He was still five shots behind.
So, too, was Rory McIlroy, adding more star power to an eclectic group of names going into the weekend.
McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world, already won this year in Dubai and was runner-up in Abu Dhabi. But when he got to Florida, his game stayed in the United Arab Emirates.
McIlroy finally got on track by running off five straight birdies on his way to a 66, which not only was his first sub-70 round in his third PGA Tour start this year, it put him in reasonable shape for the final two rounds. He also was only five shots behind.
“It would be nice to finish the round off a little better, but still a good score and sets me up well for the weekend,” McIlroy said. “I think each and every day I’m feeling a little more comfortable, especially on the greens. Obviously, we played in the morning so we got the best of the greens, and it’s easier to trust the lines you pick for yourself. But happy with how I putted today, and putt like that over the weekend, I’ll have a chance.”
The scores are low, and that was predictable.
Bay Hill had problems with its greens over the winter, a combination of weather and an outdated strain of grass. They roll fine, but they are slow and soft. Players can take aim even from the rough and can be more aggressive with their putts.
Hoffmann was every bit of that when he made four straight birdies on the front nine, and then kept stretching the lead.
“I’m trying to birdie every hole out there, so it was good,” Hoffmann said. “Just hitting great putts and good shots into the greens really helps. It’s nice to hit some greens for a change. This year hasn’t been that great, and it’s a good change.”
His 36-hole score was one short of the tournament record, last matched a year ago by Adam Scott.
Perhaps even more telling was the cut. It came at 142, which matched the lowest cut in the 27-year history at Bay Hill. Technically, it was the first time the cut was under par, though that’s a little misleading because Bay Hill converted to a par 70 in 2008 in an effort to make it seem tougher than it already is.
The average score was 71 on Friday, and only 29 players in the 120-man field failed to shoot par or better.
Stenson, who has been fourth in his two Florida events during this swing, was even par for the front nine when he figured he better get moving, and he did. Stenson made birdie on No. 10, another one on the par-5 12th, and then he finished with four straight birdies for a 66.
This is McIlroy’s final event before he goes to the Masters to try to complete the career Grand Slam. English is just trying to get there. He is No. 52 in the world, and he needs a top 10 to have any chance of cracking the top 50 — and then he will have to stay in the top 50 after next week to get his invitation.
He is playing well enough to focus on winning Bay Hill, but either way, the same principle applies.
“Got to keep the pedal down and keep aggressive,” English said.
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