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Laird battles Bay Hill monster before winning by one

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer

ORLANDO, Fla. -- This is the King's honest truth.

When Arnold Palmer bought the Bay Hill Club & Lodge a few decades ago, he had grand dreams and actually admitted once that he hoped the course someday would someday prove worthy enough to host the most vaunted American event of them all.

That would be the U.S. Open, of course.

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It never happened, for a variety of reasons. Although, in all honesty, the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday was every bit as bloody, with players every bit as bowed, as they are at the end of the National Open.

With Bay Hill dialed up to 11 in terms of punitive volume, it wasn't so much a golf tournament, but a series of cringes, capitulations and cave-ins. The last man standing, which by no means suggests that he didn't take some memorable headers along the way, was rising Scottish star Martin Laird, who established a high-water mark for a victor at Arnold's Place. Emphasis on the water.

Laird shot a 3-over 75 in the final round, the highest score by a winner in the tournament's 33-year history and the highest by a PGA Tour winner since Trevor Immelman won the 2008 Masters with the same closing score.

On that front, Steve Marino, who butchered the 17th hole with a double-bogey that effectively wrecked his shot at securing his first tour win, is headed to Augusta National to practice on Monday, which ought to qualify as good news. It will almost certainly be less torturous.

"I would think so," he said.

Nobody underscored the carnage better than the winner, who after rinsing his approach shot in the water on the 11th hole to skid to 5-over for the day, scraped his way back. Laird, the 54-hole leader, and playing partner Spencer Levin were a combined 7 over for the day and fans were fleeing their group on the front nine like they had leprosy.

Martin Laird celebrates his slaying of the Bay Hill beast after a tumultuous round of ups-and-downs Sunday. (Getty Images)  
Martin Laird celebrates his slaying of the Bay Hill beast after a tumultuous round of ups-and-downs Sunday. (Getty Images)  
Was it compelling TV? Well, as a guy named Abe Lincoln once said, "People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like." Orlando hosted the Mega Con convention this week, which attracted quite the assortment of gaily dressed comic book and superhero aficionados. The masochists and sadists headed over to Bay Hill.

Speaking of which, before the day began, the tournament staff went out on the back nine and stuck flags in corners as though they were sticking needles in voodoo dolls. It was destined for disaster. Everybody knew it was coming.

"The back-nine pins, they are all bogey and double-bogey pins," said former Bay Hill champion Phil Mickelson, who finished T24. "They are not birdie pins. The last eight holes, you have to play 50 feet away if you're playing smart."

Bay Hill was Bay Hell, and it was so brutal, you had to laugh to endure it, Marino said.

"The greens were so firm and crispy," Marino said. "You were almost trying to lag, like, 12-foot putts."

It made for a nice primer for the majors, on the other hand. Usually, this type of serial gagging and purging is reserved for major championships or bulimics.

Marino hit his tee shot on the 17th into a buried lie in the front bunker, blasted over the green, then took three shots to get up and down for a gut-churning double-bogey that amounted to a three-shot swing. Roughly 100 yards away, Laird was making a birdie on the 16th green to again take the outright lead.

As was the case a few years ago, when players joked that Palmer had used Quikrete when he redid the greens, the putting surface at 17th was like a tarmac. Seventy-three of the best players in the world played the hole on Sunday and 19 found the green in regulation. That's 26 percent, mathematicians.

Three weeks ago, Marino hosted and won a ping-pong tournament at his home in Tequesta, Fla., which was probably a nice way to prepare, given the way the top of the scoreboard was turning over.

"This week at Arnold Palmer's," Mickelson said, "it was a terrific way to set the tone heading to Augusta National."

Weekend at Arnie's -- where everybody felt like a corpse at the end. Left for dead after 11 holes, Laird surely impressed with his tenacity, becoming the first European winner in event history. He played the final seven holes in 2-under while everybody else seemed to be crawling to the clubhouse.

"I've never seen anything quite like it," NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller said. "We're seeing a lot of guys who are struggling, but this course will do that."

By the end, there was an absurdity to it all. For example, Mark Wilson teed off 3 hours and 10 minutes before the last group of Laird and Levin, shot 69 and marched up the board like he was wearing crampons. By the time it was over, he finished T9.

Vaughn Taylor, a fairly level-headed lad, was so perturbed that he heaved his putter in the lake on No. 13 and putted the rest of the way with is wedge. Levin bogeyed four of his first five holes and was lighting up so many cigarettes between shots, he probably needed a lung transplant at the turn.

There was plenty of hacking and coughing elsewhere. Tiger Woods was cruising at 3 under, then finished with a bogey and double-bogey to finish in a tie with Mickelson.

A couple of hearty souls made runs at the end, including Englishman Justin Rose, who shot 68, the second-best round of the day, and had to wait to see how many shots the others on the leaderboard frittered away down the stretch. Frittered being the cleanest verb available.

"You just cannot afford to piss away shots in the final round," Marino said.

Especially not on a course with this much vinegar.

Rose noted that he, too, will make a trip to Augusta National over the next few days for a Masters recon trip. Surely, that will seem like R&R after a weekend at Palmer's. It might even be easier.

"You know what?" Rose's caddie, Mark Fulcher, said. "You might be right."

For the psyche and survival of the guys who already endured this week, I sure hope we're not wrong.


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