ORLANDO, Fla. — Graeme McDowell was wearing some sort of newfangled training aid on his right knee as he stood on the driving range at Bay Hill late Wednesday afternoon, fiddling with his downswing. Alas, it was too little, too late-the 2010 European Player of the Year shot a wind-blown 80 in the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Thursday. Spencer Levin led by three after a 6-under 66, followed by Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan (3-under 69). Late entry Phil Mickelson birdied his last hole to join a large group at 70 before Tiger Woods posted 73.
Mickelson and Woods, neither of whom has found his A-game this year, get most of the press, but everyone at Bay Hill is searching. Golf is like that. McDowell, the same guy who won the U.S. Open last summer and who clinched the winning point at the Ryder Cup last fall, made six bogeys and a triple Thursday. Yes, sir, it appears he's got the game whipped.
Robert Damron has dropped off the Tour and like many is playing on a sponsor's exemption here. He posted a sporty 73 Thursday.
Daniel Chopra, a Bay Hill member who missed 19 cuts in 28 starts last year and who's won $0 in 2011, came out of nowhere to fire a 70.
Then there was Andy Bean, 58, who is playing to commemorate his Bay Hill victory, which included a second-round course and tournament record 62, 30 years ago. He bogeyed two of his first three holes Thursday but hung tough and shot a respectable 74. Apparently, over the course of 30 years of nips and tucks, Bay Hill has not been Bean-proofed.
"Just being around Mr. Palmer is wonderful," said Bean, a longtime resident of Lakeland, about an hour away on I-4, who nonetheless has been staying with a friend in Orlando this week.
"Arnold's done so much for the game. I saw him Friday afternoon, and I asked him, I said, 'It's okay if I play, isn't it?' He was over there on the range hitting balls. He said, 'Isn't your name up on the board?' 'Yes, sir.' 'You still got the record, don't you?' 'Yes.' He gave a little wink. He's been great. This is close to home."
Bean is Florida to the pulp. A former Florida Gator, he got his first and second to last of 11 Tour titles at Doral. He's at Bay Hill in part because the Champions tour, where he will play a full schedule in 2011, is dark.
"I needed a place to play," he said.
"More power to him," said Johnson Wagner, who introduced himself to "Mr. Bean" on Wednesday. "I hope I'm doing that in 30 years."
The search keeps us going, and this week it also includes Palmer's grandson, Sam Saunders (74), and Jules (Skip) Kendall, another Orlando resident who has long since dropped off the Tour. Kendall, 46, fired a 3-under 33 on his first nine, the back at Bay Hill, but crashed with a triple-bogey on the watery par-5 sixth hole and signed for a dispiriting 75.
Erik Compton, 31, a two-time heart transplant recipient from Miami, was making his fourth start at Bay Hill. He has no status on Tour but has befriended Palmer over their mutual interest in pediatric care. Compton was 12 and struggling with cardiomyopathy when he got his first transplant.
"Arnold has been very good to me because of the Arnold Palmer Hospital," said Compton, who is enjoying one of the best stretches of his career after a final-round 64 at the Northern Trust Open (T25), and a T4 at the Nationwide tour's Panama Claro Championship, both last month. "He and the committee and everybody understand my situation-it's just been a good fit. I've visited the hospital. I played in the [Monday] pro-am with Chris Peters, who I know because his 4-year-old son, Caydan, has had major heart surgery three times. Sam Saunders is a good friend of mine through playing on the Nationwide. And just being from Florida is part of it."
One of the last players on the course Thursday, Compton was 3 under for his first four holes but faded to eventually card a 75. He has played well on and off since his first-round 63 at the PGA Tour's inaugural Greenbrier Classic last summer. (He blew up with a final-round 77 to tie for 73rd.) He survived extra holes in Columbus, Ohio, to qualify for his first U.S. Open. "I've had a lot of luck along the way," Compton said at Pebble Beach, where he shot 77-81 and missed the cut. "I mean, I'm not the one performing the heart operation and putting it inside my chest."
No, but he is the one shooting the scores. After flying cross-country to Monday-qualify for last month's NTO in Los Angeles-he got in with a 66-Compton started well but was despondent after a third-round 75.
"Weekends are no good for me," he said while padding around the locker room at Riviera, wondering where he might play next.
He bounced back with the 64. Maybe weekends weren't so awful.
Compton flew home to Miami to celebrate daughter Petra's 2nd birthday and carried his momentum to Panama, where he started his first round with five straight birdies despite not having played a practice round. Poised to win for the first time since his days on the Canadian Tour, he shot another 75 in the last round. Weekends: bad.
"I hit 14 greens in regulation," Compton said, chatting with a former caddie and greeting well-wishers at Bay Hill's practice putting green, "and the greens I didn't hit I made bogey or double."
Hundreds of putters encircled a handful of tour bags standing on the fringe, and Compton asked anyone within earshot if he could he take one. It's exactly what the equipment reps want players to do, but wouldn't it be stealing? This week marks the former University of Georgia standout's 27th start on Tour since 2000. He suffered a heart attack and got his second heart transplant, from a 28-year-old who had died on his motorcycle, in 2007.
Compton hasn't grasped the entitlement thing yet.
"Everybody asks me about my schedule," he said, "but I'm just going one day at a time. I just found out I got into Houston next week. I got in here. All I care about is the day I'm playing or the next day. My whole season could change [with a win or even a top 10 on the Tour]."
The same could be said of Kendall, Damron, Bean, Chopra and the rest of them. It could even be said, to a lesser extent, of Woods, Mickelson and McDowell. Four good days-it's so close. It's so far away.