Arnold Palmer contenders: Breaking down the players who can win at Bay Hill

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A look at the contenders heading into the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

T1. Billy Horschel (seven under)

The buildup: With a remarkable birdie on 18 after getting to move his ball out of a terrible lie because of a sprinkler head, the Floridian shot a second straight 71. He has a chance to win the tournament he attended as a kid while growing up less than an hour away.

The stakes: Horschel is looking for his seventh PGA Tour win and fourth in the last five years. His last stroke-play victory came in the 2017 Byron Nelson, followed by wins in the team-play 2018 Zurich Classic and last year’s Dell Technologies Match Play.

Key stat: Ranked 62nd in the field in driving distance for the week (292.8 yards), Horschel is averaging nearly 41 yards less than No. 1 Rory McIlroy.

Quotable: “I grew up an hour from here, came here as a kid, caddied in the pro-am multiple times. A lot of family and friend support around here. Then you add on Arnold Palmer’s name to it, it would be something very special that, at the end of my career, I could say that was a special victory.”

T1. Talor Gooch (seven under)

The buildup: The 30-year-old Gooch had a one-shot lead in the third round going into the 18th, but made bogey to score 72 and drop into a tie with Horschel. He’d charged with back-to-back birdies at 15 and 16.

The stakes: Gooch already had played a dozen tour events for this season heading into the week. It’s been an impressive run. He scored his maiden tour win last November in the RSM Classic after two top-fives to begin the campaign.

Key stat: On a course playing at major-like conditions, it’s no surprise Gooch is at the top considering that he’s No. 1 for the week in SG/tee-to-green (2.852).

Quotable: “It’s a grind, but I kind of think we don’t get this enough on the PGA Tour. So I think that’s part of why we like it when we do get it. It’s nice to not have a week of a birdie fest.”

3. Viktor Hovland (six under)

The buildup: Hovland, the World No. 4, was cruising with the lead until hitting a wall on the back nine. The Norwegian made four bogeys coming in, including at 17 and 18, to shoot 75. It was badly reminiscent of last year, when Hovland got into contention and shot 77-78.

The stakes: A strong bounce-back effort would seem critical for Hovland’s psyche—particularly as it relates to Bay Hill. The guy expects to win every time he tees it up, so not getting a fourth win (and second of the season) at 24 would be a disappointment, but hardly crushing.

Key stat: Hovland holed out a bunker shot for eagle at the par-5 sixth. That was a total outlier. Playing from the sand is not his strength, and he was 0-for-5 in sand saves the rest of the day.

4. Scottie Scheffler (five under)

The buildup: The 25-year-old climbed 16 places up the leader board on Saturday by shooting a four-under 68. His five-under 31 on the back nine—highlighted by making a 12-foot eagle putt at the par-5 16th—is the lowest score of the week for nine holes. It was quite the bounce back after making three straight bogeys at Nos. 7-9.

The stakes: Scheffler is on a heater. A win would give him two victories in three starts after he captured his first PGA Tour triumph in February’s WM Phoenix Open. He followed that with a T-7 at the Genesis Invitational. Ranked No. 6 in the world, Scheffler already has four top-10s in nine starts this season.

Key stat: Scheffler’s putting has been strong this season—he’s gained .539 strokes—and he’s more than doubled that advantage this week at 1.208.

Quotable: “The greens—it’s hard to putt on them because you don’t know if there’s going to be friction. There’s so little grass, so sometimes there is and sometimes there isn’t. With the wind the way it is, if you’re putting even uphill putts, the wind is affecting them so much that it’s so difficult to putt.”

5. Gary Woodland (four under)

The buildup: If the conditions are U.S. Open-like, then why not have a U.S. Open winner contending? Woodland, the winner of the national championship at Pebble Beach in 2019, opened with a birdie on Saturday, threw in an eagle at the sixth and birdied the tough 17th to shoot 70. He’s grinded this one out, the only player in the top five who hasn’t dipped into the 60s this week.

The stakes: Woodland, 37, has fallen to 115th in the World Ranking and hasn’t won since the U.S. Open—which was his fourth tour victory. He’s got a bizarre record this season: two top-10s (CJ Cup and last week’s Honda Classic) and five missed cuts.

Key stat: Woodland ranks sixth this week in SG/putting (1.758) after he entered the week 59th (.236) for the season.

Quotable: “It’s hard. Playing last week and then this week, the mental grind—we were talking. Tampa [Valspar, in two weeks] is going to feel like a cake walk playing the last two weeks. Obviously, next week [Players Championship] is tough as well.”

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