Scheffler, Lowry rally to share the lead on tough day at Bay Hill

Scottie Scheffler hits from the first fairway during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament Saturday, March 9, 2024, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Scottie Scheffler hits from the first fairway during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament Saturday, March 9, 2024, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Scottie Scheffler was losing ground and losing his mind Saturday at Bay Hill, and he wasn’t alone at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

This was a day to stay patient, not only because of the severe conditions of firm greens and wind gusts, but because Will Zalatoris threatened to pull away when he built a five-shot lead. Scheffler was six shots behind when he walked off the 11th green.

When the third round ended, Scheffler found himself in a share of the lead with Shane Lowry, saved by his putter of all things, and plenty of help from Zalatoris.

Scheffler, the No. 1 player in the world, one-putted his final seven greens, four of them for birdie, for a 2-under 70. Lowry also bounced back with two late birdies, one from just outside 30 feet on the par-3 17th, for a 70.

“You can make some mistakes,” said Scheffler, whose four bogeys were his most in a PGA Tour round since Saturday at the Tour Championship last August. “It’s all about how you bounce back from them.”

Scheffler did his part. So did Lowry with a birdie-birdie-par finish.

No one bounced back quite like Rory McIlroy, who didn’t make a birdie until he became the first player to drive the green on par-4 10th, and then he ran off five more and shot 30 on the back nine for a 68. He was four behind.

Scheffler and Lowry were at 9-under 207, one shot ahead of U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark, who had two double bogeys and still was tied for the lead until a bogey on the 18th.

They all owe a small debt of gratitude to Will Zalatoris.

Zalatoris had a five-shot lead over the field at one point, only to make two double bogeys over the final five holes that allowed everyone to catch up, and others — like McIlroy — to stay alive.

McIlroy helped himself immensely by taking advantage of hot weather, a strong breeze and no shortage of talent by driving the 10th. The severe dogleg right measures 401 yards. McIlroy’s drive went 365 yards. It was the first of six birdies on the back nine for a 30.

On another steamy day when the margin of error at Bay Hill shrinks by the hour, Zalatoris blistered the front nine with a 32 and reached 5 under for the day with a 30-foot birdie putt on the 11th. He was five shots clear of the field. Scheffler at that point was six behind.

But then Zalatoris ended 42 consecutive holes without a bogey by failing to save par from a bunker on the 14th. That was only the start.

His drive on the 15th went into a bunker, leaving a sketchy lie and blocked by trees. He went into the rough, hit to 35 feet and three-putted for double bogey.

On the closing hole that had a front pin, Zalatoris caught a flyer from the first cut and plugged into a back bunker, leaving a downhill shot on greens with dying grass and no friction. He blasted out back into the fairway, pitched to 5 feet and missed the putt.

All those birdies early, the big mess late, and it added to a 71. Even so, he was still just two shots behind as Zalatoris tries to make a remarkable return from back problems.

“Obviously, the finish wasn’t what I wanted. That’s just Bay Hill,” Zalatoris said. “I’m still in the ballgame, as frustrating as it is to finish up that way.”

So is Clark, despite two double bogeys on the front nine, both from poor chips and bad putts. He atoned for that with four birdies and an eagle, and he was tied for the lead until missing his tee shot to the right on the 18th in grass so thick it covered the top of his shoes. That led to a bogey and 71.

Hideki Matsuyama had two late birdies and closed with a great save, going deep into the rough on the 18th, chopping back to the fairway and hitting a lob wedge that danced around the cup and set up a short par putt. He had a 72, as did Russell Henley. They joined Zalatoris at 209.

Harris English, who had a chance to win last year and plays some of his best golf at the U.S. Open, had a 68 after making a 40-foot birdie putt on the last hole. He was three behind.

That’s what Bay Hill has come to resemble. The tropical weather feels like March. The demanding conditions feels like a U.S. Open in June.

“I needed a lot of patience,” Scheffler said. “It’s a tough place to play. It’s tough to make putts, it’s tough to get the ball close to the hole. I’m proud of how I finished.”

His run began with a short birdie putt on the par-3 12th, followed by a 10-footer for birdie, just inside 15 feet for par, 15 feet for birdie and three simple ones to close. A putting slump is all that has kept Scheffler from dominating the game. He’s never far from the lead, and the Bay Hill winner from 2022 will be in the pole position with Lowry on Sunday.

McIlroy has been listless since his win in Dubai in January, but he came to life after apparently damaging the tee marker on the eighth hole after a bad tee shot.

And then came the 10th hole.

“The tee shot onto the green there, that sort of got me going a little bit,” he said. “I thought if I got it in one of the two front traps that would be a good leave to hit something up the green. I wasn’t trying to hit it on the green, but it was nice to walk up and see it on there.”

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