ORLANDO, Fla. — The Arnold Palmer Invitational is going exactly as planned. The top five players in the world are here. Well, four, after Bubba Watson had to withdraw to attend the funeral of a friend.
The tournament is turning into just the kind of big-name shootout we knew it would be with that kind of star-studded field at Bay Hill. One look at the leaderboard gives you goose bumps. Or at least a slight rash.
Morgan Hoffmann. Matt Every. Ben Martin. Danny Lee. David Lingmerth. And a Cinderella story known as Rory McIlroy.
Friday’s leaderboard epitomizes why golf is fun. Any player on the PGA Tour can go low at any time and after 36 holes, Morgan Hoffmann looks like the greatest player of the 21st century.
All he did Friday was whip out nine birdies and shoot 65 to back up his opening 66. Scores were low because Bay Hill has soft, receptive greens and for a second straight day, the Florida breezes were missing in action.
The good news for tourney host Arnold Palmer is World No. 1 McIlroy is on the leaderboard in his first appearance here. The surprising news is that he shot 66 and lost ground to Hoffmann, whom he trails by five.
Mark your calendars, this is the week when Morgan Hoffmann became a star. Win or lose, the media picked up his story and ran with it.
Here’s your Morgan media checklist:
*Found out his 97-year-old grandmother died shortly before he teed off in Thursday’s round.
*Spent 12 hours a day on the range hitting balls last weekend after missing the cut at Innisbrook because he was swinging so bad.
*Worked really hard to add 15 pounds to his frame over the winter because he can’t seem to gain weight despite eating six meals a day. (Seven overweight, middle-aged golf writers in unison: “Hey, me too!”) Then he got food poisoning at the Hawaii stop in January and lost ten of those pounds. (Check those guys who allegedly made off with Robert Allenby’s credit cards.)
*Has wanted to be a pro golfer since the age of five. He’s a rare bird, a pro golfer from New York City. Technically, he grew up across the river in Franklin Lakes, N.J. He’s a Jersey boy who played college golf for Oklahoma State University’s powerhouse program, now lives in Jupiter, Fla., and still works out with a trainer in New York’s trendy SoHo district. Ayyyyy, Nooo Yawk!
*Arnold Palmer himself encouraged Hoffmann, 25, to complete his pilot’s license and now Hoffmann flies himself to tournaments.
*Hoffmann has his own plane. It’s not a jet, like Arnie used to fly in, it’s a six-seat, single engine job. Wait, this guy’s been on Tour for three years, he’s never won a tournament, and he can afford his own plane? Well, he’s quietly won almost $3 million, and he got a deal on a used plane from a buddy, hockey player David Booth of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who decided to upgrade his own set of wings.
*He packs a lunch for himself, which his caddie carries in a small cooler in the bag. It’s part of his health regimen. He cooks food, stashes it in containers, brings it to the course and pulls it out of the bag when he’s hungry. It beats the heck out of throwing down some Hershey bars during the round, he said.
*An invite to play in a celebrity hockey game and a couple of golf rounds with Wayne Gretzky and friends in Las Vegas last week went unfulfilled because Hoffmann decided it might be smart not to get hurt before playing in his first Masters tournament. The only other major he ever played was the 2012 U.S. Open. He finished 29th.
*Hoffmann is the turn-around story of the week. He was ranked 137th in the world, and while he was 18th in driving distance, the statistics showed he wasn’t kidding about having swing issues. He ranked 205th on Tour in greens hit in regulation. Now he’s making birdies at a ridiculous clip.
*What else could this polite, clean-cut young man surprise you with? His dream foursome would include Jessica Alba (OK, we get that) and Charles Barkley.
When it’s your week, it’s your week. You’ve just got to get out of the way.
Friday, his tee shot at the 12th hole caromed off a cart path and into some trees, from where he had no shot to the green. He tried to get his next shot into a greenside bunker and was successful, then he got up and down for a notable par that kind of broke the monotony of those nine birdies he was piling up.
“That was kind of a fun hole,” he said.
It’s all fun when you’re playing as well as he is.
“I’d say I’m trying to have fun, but I’m also very serious and enjoying myself in between shots,” said Hoffmann, “But when I’m in my routine, I’m pretty focused.”
You’ve got the idea by now that your tournament leader is not just your average, boring pro golfer. It’s pretty interesting that a guy who is already a pilot is winning Arnie’s tournament, since flying was Arnie’s greatest passion outside of golf.
Yes, a Renaissance Man is leading the API.
“I’m an adrenaline junkie. It’s hard to be calm out there in golf. It’s a challenge for me. Off the course, I like fast action sports. Golf is the hardest game to play I think, and I love a challenge so it’s fun for me.”
Low scores piled up like Disney World tourists backed up on I-4. Defending champion Matt Every shot 32 on the back nine to get to 10 under par, three behind Hoffmann at 131, 13 under par. Danny Lee fired 64 and tied for fourth with McIlroy, who birdied five holes in a row on the front side, his second nine.
Ian Poulter, Sean O’Hair, Louis Oosthuizen and the rest, they’re all chasing the unheralded Hoffmann going into the weekend.
“It’s nice to hit some greens for a change,” said Hoffmann, who admitted he wasn’t even thinking about winning this tournament yet. “This year hasn’t been all that great, and it’s a good change. I’m just trying to birdie every hole out there.”
So far, so good.