Laird cutting loose at Bay Hill

Martin Laird didn't split up with his coaches. It just sounds that way.

And it's not because he was playing poorly. Quite the opposite.

A playoff loss at the opening FedEx Cup playoff event all but assured him a spot in the majors this year. Then came a trip home to Scotland and a tie for fifth in the Dunhill Links, followed by a return to America and a playoff loss to Jonathan Byrd's hole-in-one in the dark of Las Vegas. Laird then went to Malaysia and tied for third.

One similarity to that stretch was that Laird didn't practice. He showed up and played.

"It showed me that I've always been more of a grinder," he said Friday after a 7-under 65 for a one-shot lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. "It was funny to me that when I really just turned up at tournaments and let it happen, I played better. My coach and I decided this offseason to see a lot less of each other."

The idea was to get together every half-dozen tournaments to check positions, because Laird is doing something right.

"And it's paying off," he said.

He did get together with coach Mark McCann at the start of Bay Hill, only because he felt he hit the ball poorly at Innisbrook last week, when he chipped and putted to a tie for fifth. They worked on one swing key, and Laird was on his way.

Nine holes into his practice round, it all came back to him.

Thirty-six holes into the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Laird was at 9-under 135 and had a one-shot lead over Spencer Levin, who struggled to a 70 in the morning, and K.J. Choi, who had a tournament-best 64 in the afternoon.

Staying atop the leaderboard will be the tricky part.

There were 16 players separated by six shots going into the weekend at Bay Hill, a group that included — barely — six-time Bay Hill champion Tiger Woods.

Woods played a clean round Friday, the only big mistake coming on the third hole when he made solid contact out of the rough but turned the ball over enough to twice bounce off the rocks framing the green and staying in the hazard. He still pitched up to 2 feet and did no worse than bogey, his only dropped shot in a round of 68 that put him six shots behind.

For Woods, that constitutes progress these days.

"I had a hard time getting the ball to the hole today," Woods said. "That was probably the main thing. I left five putts that were dead center short, and this could have been a pretty special round if I had hit it a little harder."

Even so, he was still in the picture. That wasn't the case at Doral or the Match Play Championship, where he was beaten in the first round. Bay Hill takes on more significance because it's his last tournament before the Masters.

"We're trying to build toward the first major, and that's kind of how my game is," he said. "It's building and it's coming."

The same could be said for a couple of other players far closer to the lead.

Levin has been feeling more comfortable on the PGA Tour and contending more often. He didn't play his best Friday in the slightly easier morning conditions, but leaned on his belly putter — all four of his birdies were longer than 15 feet.

The group at 6-under 136 included Steve Marino, who some consider the best player over the last year to have never won on the PGA Tour. Marino has given himself two shots this year, at the Sony Open and Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, and is back for another chance.

"Every time I put myself in a position like that, it gives me more confidence," Marino said. "If I have the game to do what it takes to get to that point, it's just a matter of time for me until I just keep doing the same things and finish one off."

Also at 136 was Charles Howell and Vaughn Taylor. Both have won on the PGA Tour, and both are desperate for win right about now, especially since it's the only way they can play in their hometown tournament in a few weeks at the Masters.

Rickie Fowler also is looking for his first win. He was making his way up the leaderboard until bogeys on his last two holes for a 71. He was at 4-under 140, along with Jason Dufner.

Laird didn't talk about the swing key McCann gave him, but he couldn't be happier with his driver.

He reached three of the par 5s in two shots, converted one of them into an eagle, and played the longest holes in 5 under. And it wasn't just the par 5s. Even without any wind in the afternoon, Laird hit driver on the 384-yard fifth hole to set up a simple pitch and another birdie. He closed his round with a 321-yard tee shot on the ninth and a 12-foot birdie.

"I'm driving the ball really well and putting really well," Laird said. "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."

Choi put in three hybrids to go with his driver and two fairway metals, all to get ready for the Masters. It paid dividends at Bay Hill with a tournament-best 64. Levin didn't play his best in the morning, but his putting carried him to a 70. Levin made all four of his birdie putts outside 15 feet to stay atop the leaderboard until Laird's late surge.

"I would never have thought that I would score 8 under today on a course like this," Choi said. "I'm just happy that I've done that, and I just want to keep this rhythm going on for the last two days."