ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — For one hole, Sean O’Hair felt like so many others at Bay Hill.
On the verge of building the biggest 36-hole lead in seven years at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, he hit what appeared to be another solid tee shot on the par-5 ninth, his final hole of the second round.
It was a little to the left, but not much. O’Hair didn’t give it much thought until he arrived at the ball and could barely find it in the dense rough just a yard from the fairway. His best option was to play short of the green and give himself a chance to save par.
He didn’t, making his only bogey of the day.
O’Hair still wound up with a 5-under 65, matching the best score Friday, one that few thought possible given the tough conditions. He had a three-shot lead over Jason Gore going into the weekend, with defending champion Tiger Woods lurking in fifth place, five shots back.
There was talk earlier in the day that Bay Hill bore some resemblance to a U.S. Open with fast greens and thick rough, such a test that a player could not lose focus until his ball was in the cup.
“I played well yesterday and shot 65, so it’s out there,” said Gore, who followed that up with a 70. “Somebody is going to get hot. It’s difficult to do. You know that there’s only going to be a few random guys that shoot it. You just hope that they’re barely making the cut.”
He was close.
Two guys shot a 65 – O’Hair and Robert Allenby, who was tied for third with Ryuji Imada, who had a 66. But instead of barely making the cut, O’Hair built a nice lead and was at 8-under 132.
O’Hair’s round was set up by his tee shots, and he figured if he was driving it well, he probably would swing the irons the same way. He birdied the opening three holes, all from within 8 feet, and he had a putt for birdie on all but three holes.
It all sounded simple enough.
“The rough is very penal, but if you’re in the fairway all day, you don’t have to worry about it,” O’Hair said. “The greens are absolutely perfect. You just give yourself some nice opportunities, and all of a sudden you’re 8- or 9-under par.”
For Woods, those opportunities were rare.
After two birdies through three holes put his name on the leaderboard, he went 13 holes without another. And toward the end of his round, it looked as though it might get away from him.
Woods fanned a 5-wood into a bunker some 50 yards from the green on the par-5 sixth, and it was such a fried egg that John Daly would have been proud of how long Woods took to hit the shot – just under 10 seconds. He had to play it sideways, then hit a pitch that skipped and stopped 4 feet away for par.
On the next hole, the par-3 seventh, with Padraig Harrington and Mark Wilson already in close birdie range, Woods turned over his shot and watched it sail left of the green and onto a walkway with grass that had been matted down. He had some 30 feet to the hole, but the green ran away from him.
Woods hit a full flop shot that landed softly on the fringe and stopped 3 feet away for another amazing par.
“I had a tuft of grass behind it, and I went ahead and hit it harder than I normally would, just to try to get through it. And hopefully, it came out the way it did,” Woods said.
He came up short on the eighth hole, too, but chipped that in for birdie, his second chip-in of the round and third for the week. That gave him a 69 and a late tee time, although he still has five shots to make up if he wants to win this tournament for the sixth time.
“Today was just kind of a grind-it-out day,” he said. “The golf course is getting fast. The greens are really getting fast.”
Vaughn Taylor was in the group at 138 thanks to a remarkable three-hole stretch. He hit 6-iron for an ace on the seventh hole, then followed that with consecutive birdies to reach 4 under. Taylor wound up with a 68.
“Bogeys are there to be made,” Gore said. “The golf course is playing tough.”
That much was evident not by the 21 players who remained under par, but the 13-shot differential between O’Hair at 132 and those who made the cut on the number at 5-over 145.
A week ago at Innisbrook, the differential was only seven shots.
Davis Love III could face an uphill road to Augusta National. He is No. 47 in the world ranking – the top 50 after this week are invited to the Masters – and missing the cut will cause him to fall. Four of the next seven players behind him made the cut, including Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa.
Oosthuizen had a triple bogey and double bogey in a four-hole stretch Thursday and rallied with three birdies. On Friday, he fell to the cut line by trying to play a shot out of the water on No. 11 and leaving it in the hazard.
“I learned I’m not a fish,” Oosthuizen said, although he had his rain suit, meaning he didn’t have to pull a Henrik Stenson and strip down to his underwear.
He rallied with three more birdies and could be well on his way to Magnolia Lane.
O’Hair is more interested in Victory Lane at Bay Hill, which comes with a firm handshake from the tournament host, a silver sword and a blazer. But there is much work left, and plenty of players lurking – including Woods, the defending champion.