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Conners leads by one shot at Bay Hill as McIlroy lurks

by The Associated Press | March 6, 2021 at 3:55 a.m.
Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, hits to the 16th green Friday during the second round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, Fla. - Photo by John Raoux of The Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Corey Conners spent more time grinding out pars than chasing birdies, and that proved to be the right recipe Friday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational as Bay Hill began to bake under a warm sun.

Conners surged into the lead with a 25-foot eagle putt on the par-5 16th hole -- his second eagle on that hole in two days -- for a 3-under 69 and a one-shot advantage over former Bay Hill winner Martin Laird (67).

Rory McIlroy was poised to at least join Conners in the afternoon until he hit a couple of loose drives that cost him one shot when he could only pitch back to the fairway, leading to bogeys. He closed with five straight pars for a 71 that he figures could have been worse.

"It could have been the round that I could have shot 74 or 75. I got in with 71 and pretty happy with that," McIlroy said.

He was two shots behind, along with Viktor Hovland and Lanto Griffin, who each had a 68.

Jordan Spieth remained in the mix going into the weekend, which is becoming a regularity in the last month as he tries to end more than three years without winning. Spieth hit a superb flop shot over the bunker to a fast green that rolled out to a foot to escape with par and a 69.

Conners was at 9-under 135, and now everyone braces for the weather.

The forecast featured plenty of rain Saturday, which figures to make Bay Hill play longer and tougher, while also keeping the greens from getting as crusty as they were last year when Tyrrell Hatton won with a closing 74.

"We'll just see what happens and be ready for anything," Conners said.

Hatton at least gets a chance on the weekend. He opened with a 77 and was 10 shots better Friday, a 67 that allowed him to make the cut was one shot to spare.

Also making the cut were both Ryder Cup captains -- Padraig Harrington of Ireland with a 74 to be nine shots behind, Steve Stricker with a 71 that left him one shot better.

Conners, whose lone PGA Tour victory came two years ago at the Texas Open, saved par seven times during his round, the exception coming at the par-3 second hole when he came up short of the green, some 80 feet away, and wound up missing his par putt from 10 feet.

Otherwise, the Canadian has been solid. This is only the second time he has held the lead going into the weekend, the other occasion at the Valspar Championship in 2018 when his bid to go wire-to-wire ended with a 77 in the final round.

"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 try and keep that going," Conners said. "I feel like I have a lot of energy. I had an off week last week and really excited for the weekend."

Laird has recent success winning on a familiar course. In the fall, he ended seven years without a victory by winning in Las Vegas, scene of his first PGA Tour victory in 2009. He won at Bay Hill in 2011 on a final round so tough a 75 was enough to get the job done.

Now there are plenty of others in the mix.

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