Arnold Palmer Invitational goes to Martin Laird, who outlasts Steve Marino

Arnold Palmer Invitational came two weeks before the Masters. Scotsman Martin Laird said the Arnold Palmer Invitational was good preparation for the new season's first major.

Scott A. Miller/Reuters
Martin Laird of Scotland poses with the trophy after winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament at Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Florida, March 27.

The next stop for Martin Laird is the first major of the year. It will be his first trip to Augusta National for the Masters in two weeks, and he can't be any more prepared than he is now.

Not because he won at Bay Hill, but because it felt as if he won the U.S. Open.

"That was a tough fight out there," Laird said Sunday after his one-shot win over hard-luck Steve Marino.

It was a heavyweight bout, for sure, and the most obvious piece of evidence was that Laird closed with a 3-over 75, the highest winning score at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in the tournament's 33-year history.

The course was so dry and crusty, the pins in such perilous conditions, that for so much of the hot afternoon, players were in full retreat. In the final three groups, no one broke par, and those six players combined to go 19 over.

"No one is going to take a 75 going into the last round of a tournament," Laird said. "But I knew it was going to be this tough to win. I didn't know I would win it in this fashion."

Laird started the final round with a two-shot lead, which was gone when he made the turn. It only got worse from there. Marino took a one-shot lead on the 10th, then appeared to be in control when Laird hit into the water on No. 11 for double bogey.

The final hour was the wildest of all.

Laird walked off the 14th green with a bogey to fall three shots behind. Two holes later, he headed to the 17th tee with a two-shot lead. Nothing was safe until it was over, and even that kept a packed grandstand in suspense.

Needing two putts for a par to win the tournament, Laird was on the front of the green just under 90 feet away, nearly the length of a basketball court. It was only seven months ago when he needed a two-putt par to win The Barclays, only to three-putt and fall into a playoff that he eventually lost to Matt Kuchar.

Yes, he remembered.

"That made me extra motivated because I wasn't going to let a tournament like this slip through my fingers again by three-putting the last," Laird said.

He knocked it up to about 3½ feet, calmly rolled in the par putt and had just enough strength left to jab the air with his fist.

"I think you can see how much it meant to me," Laird said. "That was a battle all day. And it almost makes it more sweet to win it the way I did. It's such a huge tournament. A couple of years ago, I wouldn't have thought I could have won a tournament like this. And to now be sitting here with the trophy ... obviously, it was a huge putt."

It even produced a dose of U.S. Open misery.

Marino, who already has had two close calls this year in search of his first PGA Tour victory, played flawless golf while taking advantage of Laird's early collapse. He still can't think of too many shots he would take over.

If only he could have listened to Phil Mickelson after the Masters champ finished his round at 73.

"The back-nine pins, they are all bogey and double-bogey pins — they are not birdie pins," Mickelson said. "The last eight holes are holes that you have to play 50 feet away if you're playing smart."

Marino went at the flag on the 15th with a 6-iron and posed as it covered the flag, only to see it come up a yard short and plug into the side of the bunker. The traps all had ample sand, and buried lies became the norm.

This one led to bogey, for the best Marino could do was blast some 35 feet past the hole for a bogey. He still led by two shots until Laird, playing in the group behind him, punched an 8-iron from the left rough away from the flag to the throat of the green, and holed a birdie putt from 20 feet.

Laird made an 18-foot birdie putt on the 16th, and before he could reach the 17th tee, calamity set in for Marino. He posed over another 6-iron on the par-3 17th until it again found sand, buried in a fried-egg lie. He blasted over the green, then hit a putt too hard up the slope and missed a 5-foot comebacker to take double bogey.

Just like that, Marino was two shots behind.

"If I had to do it all over again, I would love to have played that 17th hole," Marino said. "I thought I hit a really good shot in there. I thought it was going to be good, and came up short in the bunker and then plugged. That's pretty disappointing. I played so well all day, and you know, one hiccup on 17 cost me the tournament."

Laird finished at 8-under 280, the highest winning score at Bay Hill since Ben Crenshaw won in 1993.

Justin Rose closed with a 68 to finish at 6-under 282 with Marc Leishman and David Toms. Spencer Levin, who shot 41 on the front nine to seemingly fall out of contention, hung around to the end and shot 76 to tie for sixth.

Farther down the leaderboard was Tiger Woods, seven shots back, after going bogey-double bogey at the end for a 72. Bay Hill completes a full year since his return from a sex scandal, with not much to show for it — no wins, only three top 10s on the PGA Tour and not once in serious contention on the back nine.

Next stop: Augusta National.

Such is the state of his game that the six-time Bay Hill winner called this a "very good week, and a week I needed to see."

"It's getting better every week I've played," Woods said.

Laird has never felt better. The 28-year-old from Scotland — he became the first European to win at Bay Hill — came to America for college at Colorado State and never left. He hits the ball long and high, a trait he learned in high altitude to compete, and started showing signs by winning in Las Vegas two years ago.

Now, he's starting to wonder how far he can go.

His victory completed a rare double for the home of golf. Scotland didn't have a single player inside the top 100 in the world at the end of 2009. Laird moves up to No. 21 in the world with his win at Bay Hill, which followed Paul Lawrie winning in Europe earlier Sunday.

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