Viktor Hovland has won five times around the world since turning professional in 2019, but the 24-year-old Norwegian and World No. 4 remarkably has yet to hoist a trophy on U.S. soil. If he continues playing like he has in the first two rounds of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard, he may just put himself in position to not only take home some hardware this weekend but also slip on Mr. Palmer’s signature red cardigan.
Hovland surged into the lead Friday by shooting a 6-under-par 66 in the second round, and at 9-under par holds a two-stroke advantage over Talor Gooch and two former API champions – Rory McIlroy and Tyrrell Hatton – heading into the weekend.
Hovland’s hot morning was fueled largely by his short game, as he needed just 23 putts in a round that included seven birdies and one bogey. Starting on the back nine, he birdied holes 15-17, draining a 26-foot putt on number 15 and smoothing a five-iron inside 10 feet on the par-3 17th to set up an easy 2.
“It felt like I putted good yesterday. My speed was maybe a little bit off, and I still feel like I can improve on that a little bit even after today,” Hovland explained. “I just saw the lines really well and was able to start it online. Sometimes when you see a couple go in early, it’s easy to keep that feel going throughout the day.”
McIlroy, the first-round leader, shot even par Friday as winds picked up and scoring conditions became more difficult for those teeing off after noon. A 48-foot birdie putt on the eighth hole punctuated a solid two-under par front nine, but the back side saw him give shots back on the 15th and 17th holes as the greens hardened and quickened.
“I don’t think it’s maybe quite as devilish as the weekend the last couple years because the fairways are sort of soft, but the greens got — those are the sort of greens you expect to see late on a Sunday, not late on a Friday,” McIlroy said.
“It’s going to be interesting to see where they go from here, but it’s going to be a good test over the weekend. I’m glad I got 18 holes in those conditions because the course definitely changed a lot from when I played it yesterday morning to this afternoon. I’ll be a little more prepared for it tomorrow.”
Hatton managed opening rounds of 69 and 68 despite not having what he considered to be a good ball-striking week so far. His Friday morning started with a topsy-turvy ride on Bay Hill’s back nine that included two bogeys, an eagle and a birdie, but he righted the ship by playing the front side three-under par and then went in search of some answers at the bottom of a bucket of balls.
“I know deep down the long game isn’t good enough to have a chance to win if I keep playing like that,” Hatton said. “So, yeah, I just have to try and figure something out maybe this afternoon.
“I’m not one to go and hit balls after a round, but we only live half an hour away. And I’ll probably go out there maybe this evening and just hit a few and see if I can find a bit more of a positive feeling that will help us feel a bit more comfortable going into the weekend. Being in the position I’m in, I want to play better tomorrow and Sunday and take a bit of pressure off my short game.”
Gooch secured his first PGA TOUR victory earlier this season at The RSM Classic and has stayed hot with four additional top-30 finishes since then. Starting on the back nine, he supercharged his round with an eagle on the 16th, and played bogey-free golf until his final hole, where he narrowly missed getting up and down from a greenside bunker for par.
“It’s tough out there, so any time you can get under par on a day like today, you’ve done some good,” Gooch said. “I hit a bunch of fairways, and out here fairways are so crucial. You’re praying for par if you don’t hit fairways, and half the time when you do hit the fairways, you’re still praying for par. If you’re not hitting fairways, you don’t have any chance.”
Seventy-eight players made the cut at 3-over par 147, the highest cut line this season. Third-round tee times begin Saturday at 7 a.m., with the leaders teeing off at 1:40 p.m.