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Arnold Palmer Invitational 2015: Leaderboard Analysis and Highlights from Friday

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIIMarch 20, 2015

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 20:  Morgan Hoffmann of the United States waves after making a putt for birdie on the sixth hole during the second round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented By MasterCard at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge on March 20, 2015 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty Images)
Michael Cohen/Getty Images

Morgan Hoffmann remained on top after Friday's second-round action at the 2015 Arnold Palmer Invitational, but world No. 1 Rory McIlroy and other top-flight golfers also went low at Bay Hill.ย 

The nice Florida weather lent the course to yielding plenty of red numbers. After bogeying the par-four opening hole, Hoffmann reeled off six birdies in his final seven holes on the front to turn in 31.

Check out the way Hoffmann capped off his electric front side, courtesy of PGATour.com's Twitter account:

PGA TOUR @PGATOUR

Here's @Morgan_Hoffmann's birdie at No. 9, the sixth of his front-nine 31. #QuickHits https://t.co/o3jAUU5e3d

Three more birdies to just one dropped shot on the back gave Hoffmann a seven-under 65 for the day, as he kept the pressure on the rest of the field in seizing a three-stroke, 36-hole lead.

Ball-striking had been a problem for Hoffmann this year, but as The Associated Press' Doug Ferguson highlights, it's hardly an issue right now:

Doug Ferguson @dougferguson405

Morgan Hoffmann was 158th in strokes gained from tee to green coming into Bay Hill. Leads the field this week. #thatexplainsit

Hoffmann spoke after the round about feeling refreshed.

"I felt great about this year coming in, and I wasn't off to the greatest start," said Hoffmann, per GolfChannel.com's Will Gray. "My caddie and I are having fun out there. We have a nice confidence and flow going, so hopefully we can carry it through the weekend."

Among the trio trailing Hoffmann: past FedEx Cup champion Henrik Stenson, another young, talented American in Harris English and Matt Every, who's rounding into form after a tough start to the 2014-15 campaign.

Stenson is the big threat. The strapping Swede powered his way into the clubhouse in style, as the PGA Tour noted:

PGA TOUR @PGATOUR

After closing with four birdies, Henrik Stenson is T2 at Bay Hill. #QuickHits https://t.co/fn4aMdNOrD

Perhaps Every shouldn't be counted out either, based on the reminiscent form he showed down the stretch to match Stenson on 66; the PGA Tour provided highlights:

PGA TOUR @PGATOUR

Defending champ Matt Every is at it again at Bay Hill, making birdies at 5 of his last 6 today. #QuickHits https://t.co/cEZpHJK92a

McIlroy carded a 70 to start his maiden appearance at Bay Hill, despite hitting all but one green in regulation on Thursday. His putter cooperated a lot better in the second round en route to a strong score of 66โ€”McIlroy's best stateside score of the calendar yearโ€”to move five shots off Hoffmann's pace.

PGA Tour Media specified just how much better McIlroy was on the greens during Friday's round:

PGA TOUR Communications @PGATOURComms

In R2 @APinv, McIlroy hit just 8/14 fairways and 12/18 greens. He made up for it on the greens, needing just 25 putts (34 in R1). @PGATOUR

A modest opening-nine 34 preceded a scalding streak for the Northern Irish prodigy. McIlroy proceeded to card five consecutive birdies from Nos. 2 through 6 on his back nine.

Shots like these are why McIlroy sits atop the Official World Golf Ranking, and as the PGA Tour noted, he's "dialed in":

PGA TOUR @PGATOUR

Rory is dialed in at Bay Hill. #QuickHits https://t.co/3KTjtWY0d6

Golf Channel's Justin Ray underlines the history McIlroy could make in what figures to be his last tournament before the Masters:

Justin Ray @JustinRayGC

With win this week, @McIlroyRory becomes 3rd player last 75 years with 10 @PGATOUR wins before 26th birthday (Woods, Nicklaus).

It will be interesting to see how McIlroy fares now that he's vaulted into contention. There's a chance he could look ahead to his bid to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National and take a step back.

Or the exact opposite could very well happen. McIlroy is striking the ball great at the moment, and as long as his flat iron doesn't betray him, there's no reason to doubt that he can overtake Hoffmann and everyone else to walk away with the trophy this weekend.

If lower scores continue to be the name of the game, few are better suited than McIlroy and Stenson to capitalize on those circumstances. Both crush the ball off the tee and can hit shorter clubs to the greens, and Bay Hill's slower putting surfaces allow players to be more aggressive on birdie efforts.

The next two rounds will be must-see TV for golf enthusiastsโ€”and for those with any passing interest in McIlroy's status as the game's next all-time great by monitoring his form ahead of the year's first major.

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