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Els, Mickelson, Love, Curtis and Goosen Emerge for Battle at Bay Hill

Kathy BissellCorrespondent IMarch 27, 2010

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 26:  Phil Mickelson chats with his caddie Jim Mackay on the 12th hole during the second round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard at the Bayhill Club and Lodge on March 26, 2010 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Five major championship winners are in the running at Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Invitational.

That shows the strength of the field, as well as the quality of the course, which has been redone to rave reviews. 

Gone is the high rough that demanded a hack out or the axe club.

It has been replaced with "Augusta like" chipping areas around the greens which bring touch, creativity and decision—making into the game.

Introduced are new white sand, eyeball—catching bunkers. As Fred Funk, playing in the last year of his Players exemption said to Arnold Palmer after the first round, “I got out there and it was so white I had to put on my sunglasses.”  Palmer laughed.

The greens have also been redone and apparently, they agree with Phil Mickelson.

“It was my best putting round of the year,” he said, despite a typical Phil The Thrill round. “Penalty shots, hole—outs, birdies; it was up—and—down,” Mickelson explained with a Cheshire Cat smile that said I got away with a few.  

He feels he is finally on track with his putting, after more time with former PGA Championship winner and 1991 Ryder Cup captain, Dave Stockton. 

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“I feel like I don't have to attack every pin, and I can still make birdies,” Mickelson added.  “I can just make those 15 to 20—footers.”

The penalty he referred to was stoke and distance at the par five sixth hole, which circles around a lake.

“I had to go back to the tee,” he said.  Or, as Shotlink described it: “288 yards to water.” Two holes later, at the par four eighth, Mckelson holed out for eagle.

The renovated, closely—mown green complexes favor players with excellent touch and so it comes as no surprise that Ernie Els,, Retief Goosen, Davis Love III and Ben Curtis, as well as Mickelson, are at or near the top.

Els, Goosen, Mickelson and Curtis are known for their touch around the greens. 

For Ernie Els, it was more than short game. It was a matter of overcoming the challenge rather than submitting to it.  

“Hit two really good shots on five, three—putted and that really got me angry,” he admitted. “You know, you don't want to be in that frame of mind standing on the sixth tee.”   

The sixth hole is a par five that wraps right to left around a lake. A large alligator calls it home.

Els’ drive made it across the lake, but it pitched into the bank and rolled into the water. 

“If that ball was another yard left it would have been into the deep end,” he said.  He played the ball out of the water hazard, advancing it about 20 yards into the fairway.  “Shoes off, one slip away from going snorkeling,” he explained “I didn't get in my boxers. I'll never do that.” 

Retief Goosen, should memory escape, played mostly out of the rough during the front nine of a playoff to win his first US Open at Southern Hills and then putted like he had magnets inside his ball to win his second US Open at Shinnecock Hills, the year that the conditions got away from the USGA.

Typically, he said as little as possible, but had a sly grin, as though he knew something the others did not. This is Retief—speak for I can win this. (I have seen this grin before.)      

Davis Love III continued his good scoring and improved attitude from the first round. 

“Like I said yesterday, if you hit it in the bunkers or the lakes, it is going to cost you, and I did that today,” Love said about his round which included two chip-ins. 

He finished in the early afternoon and was faced with some time on his hands.

“I’ll remember all those nice putts and nice chip—ins and go hit a few balls and go to Bass Pro Shops and troll around for some turkey hunting stuff.”     

Ben Curtis, now known as a British Open Champ and the only guy who has played 18 holes with Tiger Woods since last Thanksgiving, attributed his scoring to a better putting round. 

He said he has just been uncomfortable with his game after making some adjustments to improve his swing and his putting stance. He is just learning to trust the swing. 

Though he would say otherwise, Curtis is a stealth—strike kind of putter with a radar—evading stroke.    

When asked if he beat Tiger Woods last week at Isleworth, he said, without offering scores, “It was close. I mean, he was a bit rusty.” They were both on the range, and Woods invited him to play.

“Everybody that tells you that it was the same as before would be kidding themselves,” he added about seeing Woods. “I didn’t know him that well before, anyway."

"But I could see where some of the guys, like Mark O’Meara and stuff that knew him pretty well, it might be a little different for them now than it was before.” 

In addition to the already well—known stars,  Kevin Na and D.J. Trahan, who broke David Duval’s scoring record at Georgia Tech, are in the hunt.

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