ORLANDO, Fla. — Other than having Tiger Woods out of the hospital and healthy enough to play again, there’s not a lot more you can ask for from the Arnold Palmer Invitational as it enters its final two rounds this weekend at Bay Hill.
Rory McIlroy, the world’s No. 2 ranked player and the 2018 winner of the tournament, has a chance to win again.
Victor Hovland, one of the game’s great young players (with two PGA Tour wins already at age 23), who had two runner-up finishes and a tie for fifth in his last three PGA Tour starts, is in contention.
So, too, is Jordan Spieth, whose form seems to be returning after a slump that has dragged on for some three years. Bryson DeChambeau and Justin Rose and Lee Westwood also are in the mix.
The leaderboard is stacked with big names, but is topped by one somewhat unfamiliar name, Canadian Corey Conners, who’s 9-under after shooting a 69 Friday and has a one-shot lead over past winner Martin Laird (8-under after shooting 67 Friday) and a two-shot edge on McIlroy, Hovland and Lanto Griffin, all of whom are 7-under.
DeChambeau, who didn’t try to drive the green on the par-5 sixth hole Friday, is 6-under. Spieth, Rose, Paul Casey and Sunjae Im are all 5-under. Among those at 4-under are Westwood, fellow Englishmen Tommy Fleetwood and Matthew Fitzpatrick (who has been in good form) and Max Homa, who just won the Genesis two weeks ago.
“With the way the course is playing and with the weather coming in [rain and wind on Saturday], if you get it to double digits under par this weekend, you’re going to have a really good chance,’’ McIlroy said.
Connors, who has one PGA Tour win, described himself as “way more comfortable’’ being in contention than he was a couple of years ago.
“I haven’t really been in this position a lot, but I have a lot of confidence in my game and feeling really relaxed the last few days, so [I’m going to] try and keep that going,’’ he said. “I feel like I have a lot of energy. I had an off week last week and really excited for the weekend.’’
So, too, is Hovland, who looks like a player ready to break out and win a bunch of tournaments.
“It’s been very fun,’’ he said. “Obviously [I’m] playing very good and I don’t feel like I have that many holes in my game anymore, which is cool, because I missed plenty of greens out there [Friday] and I still shot 68. So, it’s just a very relaxed kind of attitude.’’
With each solid round, Spieth, who hasn’t won since his 2017 British Open triumph, seems to become more relaxed despite playing this tournament for the first time.
“I’ve enjoyed getting to know this golf course,’’ Spieth said.
Spieth also enjoyed playing with and watching the polarizing DeChambeau the past two days.
“I got the text on Tuesday with the pairing and I thought, ‘What better place to be paired with him than here, with some of these holes?’ ’’ Spieth said. “It’s a show. It’s fun. It was really cool to watch. I nudged Michael [Greller, his caddie] half a dozen times the last two days, being like, ‘Watch this,’ and that doesn’t happen out here very often.’’
DeChambeau said Spieth jokingly told him, “The only reason I played this week was to see you hit it over the lake [on No. 6].’’
Defending champion Tyrrell Hatton made a huge rally to make the cut with a flurry of birdies on four of his final five holes. Hatton, who shot 77 on Thursday, shot 67 Friday and is even par.
“I really wanted to make the cut, defending this week, I wanted to be here for the weekend,’’ he said. “My game hasn’t felt great, so hoping that I can kind of find something when I wake up [Saturday] morning.’’