Spencer Levin is atop the leaderboard after the opening round for the third time this year, so that’s nothing new. It was his score Thursday afternoon at Bay Hill that surprised him and everyone else.
In warm, blustery conditions on a course that allowed only three rounds in the 60s and the most rounds in the 80s in nearly two decades, Levin had a 6-under 66 and a three-shot lead over Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Tiger Woods and his power group of Dustin Johnson and Gary Woodland provided the entertainment everyone expected, although not this variety. Woodland hit a tee shot onto another golf course, Johnson wound up 80 yards over a green and onto the next tee, and Woods’ angrily tossed his wedge after his best shot of the day.
Their scores weren’t impressive.
Woods missed a 10-foot par putt on the last hole for a 73, his highest opening round since 1999 at Bay Hill, where he is a six-time winner. Johnson and Woodland, coming off a win last week at Innisbrook, each shot 77.
Levin built the largest 18-hole lead of the year on the PGA Tour, but even that doesn’t illustrate how well he played. His 66 was nearly nine shots better than the average score at Bay Hill, which featured gusts over 20 mph and crusty conditions in the afternoon.
Fowler and Mahan played in the morning, as did Phil Mickelson, who opened with a 70.
The tough conditions showed themselves more at the bottom of the leaderboard. U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell had an 80, as did Bob Hope winner Jhonattan Vegas and Brandt Snedeker. Ricky Barnes shot an 82.
There were 13 rounds in the 80s, the most at Bay Hill since there were 24 in the second round in 1983.
And then there was Levin.
“Six under … I didn’t really even think about that on the range,” Levin said. “Because I know the course is hard, anyway, and then you 20, 30 mile per hour wind and makes it even more tough. “I was just kind of hoping anything around par, maybe anything under par, would be a good score in the afternoon for sure.”
As usual, it came down to putting.
Levin, who also had at least a share of the lead in the Honda Classic and Northern Trust Open at Riviera, holed a par putt from just off the green at No. 6 and chipped in for birdie from left of the second green. The finish kept his spirits high. From the right bunker on No. 8, he blasted out across the green and down the slope to 8 feet for par, then atoned for a mediocre bunker shot on No. 9 with a 10-foot putt.
“That was nice,” Levin said. “Obviously, a lot better mood. Parred the last two when I could have bogeyed, so that was good.”
There wasn’t much good about the feature group.
Woods struggled with his tee shots on the front nine and didn’t hit a single fairway, although he only was in big trouble once off the tee. The bigger problem was the wind, and Woods twice had to back off putts because he couldn’t keep still.
“I didn’t drive it well starting out, and then I golf a hold of that,” Woods said. “Hit my irons well all day, and on the green, it was just tough to take the putter back straight because the wind was gusting and it was tough to get the right speed.”
It looked as though he might not have to putt on the par-5 12th with a wedge that covered the flag. It hit the bottom of the pin and spun back some 25 feet. Woods dropped his club then flung it toward his bag.
Johnson and Woodland, two of the biggest hitters, each reached a par 5 in two with the wind straight into them — Woodland on the 560-yard fourth, Johnson on the 557-yard 12th.
They also hit shots rarely seen at Bay Hill.
In a left-to-right wind on the par-5 sixth, Woodland lost it to the right. It bounced off a cart path, over the fence and wound up in the water on the par-3 “Charger” course at Bay Hill, which is out of bounds. That led to a double bogey.
On the eighth, Johnson caught a flyer out of the rough and after a few bounces on the cart path, his ball finally settled 80 yards over the green and toward the front of the tee box on No. 9. Johnson was left with a blind shot over the trees and a TV tower, and it carried all the way into the water, leading to a double bogey.
Fowler set the pace in the morning and reached 5 under, helped by an eagle on the 16th. He didn’t finish as well as Levin, however, dropping shots on the eighth and ninth hole to end his round at 69. It was enough to lead until Levin warmed up.
“It’s nice to have fresh green the first nine holes, and the greens are still soft,” said Fowler, who was in the first group of the day. “You don’t have to worry about balls bouncing too much.”
Mickelson didn’t hit it his best, was pleased with his short game, especially on the greens. He took only 26 putts, and like Fowler, said it helped that the greens rolled true except in a crosswind.
“I was able to salvage par with my short game, and it was a good opening round,” Mickelson said. “I’ll certainly take it.”
Levin, entering his third year on tour and still looking for his first win, now gets to try to build on his lead Friday morning when conditions should be a little more tame.
Woods feels the same way. Sure, it was his highest opening round since a 74 in 1999, but it wasn’t awful compared with the field.
“I think even par to under par would have been a good score this afternoon,” Woods said. “Spencer obviously played well. But most of the low scores were this morning, so I’m still right there in the ball game.”