Laird Lands on Top the Leaderboard, Choi and Levin One Back
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

With calm conditions throughout the day, Bay Hill was still playing tough, but it was gettable on Friday. Playing in the morning wave, Spencer Levin didn’t think two-under was a great score and predicted guys coming in at five-, six-under in the afternoon. Charles Howell III (why, hello, Chuck!) had the low round of the morning with a 65. But in the media center, we were a little surprised when no one was going low…until KJ Choi and Martin Laird started rolling in birdies and eagles.

Choi came in with the low round of the day with an eight-under 64 to take a share of the clubhouse lead. He played flawlessly, making six birdies and an eagle. He only needed 24 putts.

The key to his stellar play was switching back to his old Odyssey putter. Choi’s best finish at Bay Hill came in 2005 when he tied for eighth, but he hadn’t experienced much success otherwise — mostly because it favors bombers, which Choi is not (he finished 131st in driving distance last year).

“I’ve always wanted to play well on this course, but it just so happened to be that after I tried maybe just too hard, I couldn’t really get the performance I wanted,” said Choi. “I would never have thought that I would score eight-under today on a course like this. I’m just happy I’ve done that and I want to keep this rhythm going for the last two days.”

Choi switched back to his “old faithful” putter, which he temporarily took out of the bag because he thought the problem was the putter, but it was actually his posture, which he fixed with the help of coach Pat O’Brien.

Choi made another pivotal change — he put three hybrids in his bag, allowing him to stop the ball on the greens.

“I’ve had the Masters in mind, so that’s the reason I changed to the hybrids,” he said.

Asked if he had ever seen another bag with so many hybrids on “this tour,” Choi, smiling, replied, “I don’t think so.” (Actually, apparently Ben Crane might have more.)

To get a sense of Choi’s distance handicap, he hit a four-hybrid into the 18th green. Meanwhile, Hunter Mahan, who shot back-to-back 69s, brushed the pin, only needing an 8-iron from 153 yards with “slight hurting wind,” according to his caddie John Wood. (And yes, Mahan was aiming for the tough pin — it was a “perfect number.”)

I’m also learning a good lesson this week — listen to Intern Kevin’s advice more when picking my Fantasy Golf team (most the time). He suggested I pick Martin Laird, but I was leaning toward Graeme McDowell and ultimately chose him. As you may know, G-Mac shot 80-73 to miss the cut. Laird has played sneaky well the past few weeks, which I’ve noticed, but I thought maybe two top-tens was going to be his peak. Wrong.

(Aside: Speaking of Fantasy Golf, big shout-out to Reader Kevin for his incredible prognosis. Check out his team — Group A: Marino, Woods; Group B: Mahan, Bubba, O’Hair, Na; Group C: Couch, Molinari. He has three of the top-ten so far!)

“I had a nice break on 16,” said Laird, who eagled it. “If that putt didn’t hit the hole, it probably would have went about ten feet by. I had a couple of putts yesterday that looked really good and didn’t go in and today any putt that looked good went in pretty much, with the exception of 8.

“Most of all it was all on the greens and obviously I’m driving the ball really well and putting really well. Ask any pro — that’s a pretty good combination to have, especially on a golf course this long where you have to drive the ball in the fairway.”

Well, KJ Choi might beg to differ. He hit nine of 14 fairways and like I said, doesn’t hit it far, making his 64 even more impressive.

Laird credits his success to loosening up and not practicing. Yep, you read that right.

“The end of the year I finished real strong, and it was kind of funny, I finished with three top-fives last year and I literally didn’t practice for one day between each of those tournaments,” said Laird, who fired a seven-under 65. “It was the end of the season, and I went back to Scotland for the Dunhill, played well, didn’t practice really; went to Vegas, played well there and really didn’t practice; and went to Malaysia and played well there.”

In other words, he played really well.

“It showed me that I’ve always been more of a grinder than someone that doesn’t do that,” he continued. “It was funny to me that when I just turned up at tournaments and let it happen, I played better.”

Laird goes into the weekend with a two-day total of nine-under and a one-shot lead over Spencer Levin and K.J. Choi.

Oh, in case you were wondering, unfortunately, Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia aren’t paired together for the third round. They both shot 73-68 (T10), but just missed each other. Instead, Woods will play with Jason Dufner (loud groans in the media center when we figured that out), who is T8 at five-under.

Rickie Fowler, who has the hottest and drunkest galleries following him (co-eds on Spring Break! Woooooot!), also posted five-under for 36 holes, despite his bogey-bogey finish for the second day in a row. Since Fowler finished before Dufner, Fowler will play with Vaughn Taylor, who is T4 and the last of the four to come in at six-under.

Anyway, too bad — Sergio and Tiger would have been fun. I mean, remember how well that played out in Dubai last month?

(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)