Gooch and Horschel share Bay Hill lead as Hovland falters and McIlroy drifts | PGA Tour

Viktor Hovland held a four-shot lead for a Saturday afternoon spell at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. As the opposition wilted, it appeared a straightforward case of the young Norwegian’s march towards the summit of world golf continuing courtesy of a seventh professional victory. Not so fast, declared Bay Hill.

By close of play, Hovland sat one adrift of Billy Horschel and Talor Gooch. Hovland’s 74 – he missed a par putt from 11ft on the last – means a six-under-par aggregate. He was minus 10 when leading all around him a merry dance. As is typical, this event is incredibly hard to call. Horschel is the man with momentum; his back nine of 34 was one better than Gooch and superior to Hovland by six.

On a wonderfully compacted leaderboard, it would be unwise to discount anybody within half a dozen shots. Keeping the ball on the fairway remains the key to happiness. “The rough is US Open rough out here,” said Gary Woodland, who is four under. “It’s brutal.” Scottie Scheffler is one ahead of Woodland.

For so long, Hovland stood firm. He dropped shots in each of his first two holes, offset by a fantastic hole-out from a bunker for an eagle at the 6th. Hovland’s birdie at the 8th felt like more than a one-shot boost, given the troubles of others on the leaderboard at the same hole.

Yet Bay Hill becomes increasingly treacherous as darkness edges closer. This proved as good as it got for Hovland. Aberrations at the 11th and 14th allowed Gooch to move within one and Horschel to sit only two adrift. When Hovland made bogey at the 17th, he found himself in a tie. Horschel reached seven under with a terrific birdie converted from the fringe of the 18th green.

Rory McIlroy tees off on the opening hole at Bay Hill.
Rory McIlroy tees off on the opening hole at Bay Hill. Photograph: Reinhold Matay/USA Today Sports

“It would be very special to win here,” said Horschel. “I grew up an hour from here, came here as a kid, caddied in the Pro-Am multiple times. I have a lot of family and friend support around here. Then you add on Arnold Palmer’s name to it. It would be something very special. But I’ve got to do a really good job of controlling my emotions more and not getting ahead of myself.”

Rory McIlroy was already plus two for his round before his drive at the 11th bounced high from a cart path. The Northern Irishman, now stuck against a boundary fence, could only advance his ball to within 80 yards of the green with a dropped shot leaving him six shy of Hovland. McIlroy responded admirably, producing birdies at the 12th and 13th as Hovland, too, bogeyed the 11th. Yet this was a round in which McIlroy constantly looked to be battling technical issues. He cracked a tee shot out of bounds at the 15th, with a double bogey there sliding him back to four under. A birdie, bogey, bogey finish all added up to 76.

“It’s so tough out there, it’s so tricky,” McIlroy said. “It’s just on a knife edge, like you’re literally talking feet. Two feet here, two feet there from 200 yards can make a huge difference in where the ball ends up. It’s hard not to get frustrated.”

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McIlroy cannot be discounted at minus three but he will have to improve significantly on day four. Graeme McDowell, looking to earn one of three berths in the Open Championship that are available here, is alongside McIlroy.

Much earlier, Matt Jones was forced to complete his round minus a putter after flinging said club deep into alligator-infested waters at the 11th. Jones was a single shot over par for his round at that point and had merely missed a birdie putt from 8ft, which rendered his outburst rather odd. He played his closing stretch in plus three before offering a firm “Nope” when asked whether he was of a mind to discuss the putter incident. Jones did not even break stride.

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