Corey Conners grabbed a share of the lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational thanks in large part to the best round of iron play all season on the PGA Tour. He remained atop the leaderboards lining Bay Hill because of another part of the bag.
Conners flips the script.
The Canadian picked up +5.55 strokes on the field with his opening-round approach play, the highest such total of any single round thus far in the 2020-21 season. It was an impossible pace to replicate the rest of the week, and indeed his iron play dropped a notch in the second round. But Conners more than compensated with a surprisingly stellar short game and a red-hot putter.
Conners hit only 10 greens in regulation after finding 15 in the opening round, and he has historically been held back by some balky play around the greens. But he more than rose to the occasion Friday, scrambling to save par on seven of his eight opportunities. He made three different par saves from outside 6 feet and also added a 24-footer to eagle the par-5 16th for the second straight day. He dropped to 59th in the field in SG: Approach but rose to fourth in SG: Putting for the round, picking up +2.637 shots on the field on the greens. It's an unconventional combination for Conners, but it's working through two rounds in Orlando.
Conners isn't the only hot putter. See: McIlroy, Rory.
As The 15th Club's Justin Ray pointed out, McIlroy has led the field in SG: Putting for the week just once in his career: it came at this event when he won back in 2018. He's once again feeling it on the greens, as the Ulsterman leads the field in putting at the halfway point while moving to within two shots of Conners' lead.
McIlroy's work on the greens wasn't quite as efficient as it was during his opening 66 when he picked up +3.724 shots on the field. But it was good enough considering his typically elite ball-striking, even on a day when he made a pair of sloppy bogeys on Nos. 8 and 13. McIlroy is 19th in the field tee-to-green, a good position but not quite up to his lofty standards. The reason he's in the mix for another API title is the putter, as he has beaten the field by nearly 5 1/2 shots over the first 36 holes.
If anything, McIlroy's ball-striking stats should improve over the weekend. If the putter remains as cooperative as it has been over the first two days, he could be tough to beat.
Updated odds to win
+350: Rory McIlroy
+450: Viktor Hovland
+600: Corey Conners
+650: Bryson DeChambeau
+1600: Martin Laird
+1700: Paul Casey
+2000: Jordan Spieth
Martin Laird is crushing it with his irons. Yes, you read that right.
It's been 10 years since the Scot won this event, and he'll have a spot alongside Conners in the final group as he trails by just one shot after rounds of 69-67. Laird missed each of his last three cuts, and in eight trips to Bay Hill since his win he has never cracked the top 25. So what's been the key to his sudden resurgence? Iron play.
Laird's approach play has been on the decline, as he has dropped from 72nd in SG: Approach last season to 113th this season. This, despite his breakout victory in Las Vegas in the fall. It's all the more surprising, then, that Laird sits third this week in SG: Approach and actually leads the field in SG: Tee-to-Green, picking up nearly nine shots on the field.
In speaking after the round, Laird explained that his turnaround began with a second-round 68 at Riviera - not good enough to make the cut after an opening 75, but enough to plant seeds of hope. He cites Bay Hill as a course where you need to "pick your spots" and sometimes play less aggressively, which suits his preferred style of play. When he won here a decade ago, the winning score was 8 under.
Laird is likely playing with house money this weekend, back on a course where he has had past success but with reinforced status through 2023 thanks to his Shriners win a few months ago. It'll be interesting to see if he can maintain his unexpectedly strong ball-striking for two more rounds.
The wet weather is coming.
Bay Hill has played a little firm over the first two rounds, buffeted by afternoon breezes under sunny skies. But that's about to change: rain is on the horizon, and the dry weekend conditions experienced last year won't be replicated. It remains to be seen how much precipitation falls at the course, but it seems likely that a significant wave of storms will roll through during third-round play.
When the heaviest stuff hits, relative to how many holes the leaders have already played, could prove critical. But the umbrellas should be out in full force Saturday, and with winds expected to pick up during the final round an edge could be given to those players who are able to handle and thrive amid significant weather fluctuations.
Round 3 Buy
Paul Casey. The Englishman offered some interesting comments after a second-round 69 that left him in a tie for seventh at 5 under. Casey explained that he "almost regretted" early-week practice on the "awkward" Bay Hill driving range because the prevailing wind was consistently off the left. He prefers to practice tee shots with the wind off the right, and his normally reliable driver began to drift off course as a result.
The relative lack of comfort has showed up on his stat line. Casey leads the field in SG: Approach but ranks 71st in SG: Off the Tee, thanks in large part to an opening-round performance where he lost nearly 2 shots to the field with a driving display that beat only seven other players.
"I don't feel like I've hit it brilliantly through 36 holes," Casey said. "But it wasn't disastrous, it wasn't destructive. I managed the game really well."
Casey is just a few weeks removed from a win in Dubai when his driving was at an elite level, and he hasn't finished worse than T-12 in any of his last four worldwide starts. He appears in line to extend that streak this week, but could do even more: the Arizona resident feels plenty comfortable on Florida courses, as his back-to-back Valspar wins can attest.
Casey's sitting at +1700 heading into Saturday, just a touch off the +2500 odds he began with this week. McIlroy could be tough to chase down but if you're looking for a mid-range investment option, you could do worse than a player who has a few recent wins under his belt in the Sunshine State and whose driving should straighten out as the weekend progresses.
Round 3 Fade
Bryson DeChambeau. DeChambeau leads the field off the tee but his approach play was absolutely dreadful Friday, ranking 104th in the field. A microcosm of his round came on the par-4 10th, where he took a previously unthinkable line over some houses to cut the dogleg corner, only to miss the green from 38 yards and settle for a disappointing par.
DeChambeau has a strong track record here, including a 2018 runner-up, and he's probably not dropping entirely out of contention. But it doesn't all seem to be clicking for him at the moment, and the prospect of both Saturday rains and Sunday winds could throw a monkey wrench into his thorough gameplan. If you didn't grab him at +1200 pre-tournament I wouldn't rush to take a piece now at +650. In fact, I might look to go the other way in a head-to-head with Lanto Griffin, where DeChambeau will tee off as a hefty favorite but Griffin has actually put together a well-balanced approach this week while ranking inside the top 10 both tee-to-green and putting.
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