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Spencer Levin blows them away with a 66 at Bay Hill

He is three shots ahead of Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan after one blustery round. Tiger Woods shoots a 73.

March 24, 2011|By Jeff Shain
  • Spencer Levin attempts a birdie putt on the sixth hole during the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, Fla., on Thursday.
Spencer Levin attempts a birdie putt on the sixth hole during the first round… (Sam Greenwood / Getty Images )

Reporting from Orlando, Fla.

If Spencer Levin could somehow order up enough wind-whipped days on the PGA Tour schedule, he might make some major hay on the money list. As it is, he's finding his place rather nicely.

Facing the same 32-mph gusts that kept all but two of the Arnold Palmer Invitational's other 119 players from even breaking 70, Levin crafted a six-under-par 66 on Thursday that propelled him three shots clear of his nearest pursuers.

"Six under — I didn't even think about that on the range," the California native said. "I know the course is hard anyway — and then you throw a 20- or 30-mile-an-hour wind and it becomes even more tough.

"Maybe anything just under par would be a good score in the afternoon, for sure."

Instead, Levin's bogey-free performance goes down as one of the best rounds of the budding 2011 season.

"Nobody went low except for Spencer," said Tiger Woods, seven shots off the pace after his opening 73.

How tough were conditions at Bay Hill Club & Lodge? Consider that Thursday's scoring average of 74.73 was highest of the season and highest at Bay Hill since 1983.

Thursday also produced 13 scores in the 80s — again, the most in a Bay Hill round since 1983 and more than the combined total of the entire 1995-97 tournaments. U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell shot 80, as did U.S. Ryder Cupper Jeff Overton and Bob Hope champion Jhonattan Vegas.

The only other entrants able to break 70 were Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan, who shot three-under 69s. Fowler actually got to five under in calmer morning conditions, but a bogey-bogey finish dropped him back.

"There were some really tough pins out there that you had to fire away from," Fowler said. "I felt like I did pretty well with that."

Then Levin came along and blew everyone else away.

It wasn't all that statistically impressive — Levin hit only six fairways and 12 greens in regulation. But his short game was sublime — featuring a chip-in for birdie at No. 2 and just 25 putts.

"That's probably the lowest [putt count] I've had in my career," he said.

Making the performance even more impressive, Thursday was Levin's first competitive round at Arnie's Place.

Then again, Levin seems to rise up in the wind. Just three weeks earlier, he was the first-round leader at Honda Classic, where even stronger breezes created a somewhat stiffer challenge.

Give credit to the two years he spent at the University of New Mexico, where those winds taught him how to control his ball flight. "That definitely helped me," he said.

Woods' reconstructed swing, meanwhile, has been vulnerable in windy conditions — and Thursday was no different. He missed the first nine fairways he encountered, leaving his iron game to keep things from snowballing.

"I'm still right there in the ballgame," the six-time Bay Hill champion said. "Most of the good scores were in the morning, so hopefully we can do it [in the second round]."

Woods wound up with the best score of his high-profile pairing. Dustin Johnson, runner-up two weeks ago at Doral, carded a 77, as did Gary Woodland, who notched his first PGA Tour win last week at the Transitions Championship.

jshain@orlandosentinel.com

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