ORLANDO, Fla. -- Martin Laird loves when he can smash a driver, and that carried him a long way Friday at Bay Hill.
Laird reached three of the par 5s in two shots, converted one of them into an eagle and wound up with a 7-under 65 for a one-shot lead over K.J. Choi and Spencer Levin in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
It wasn't just the par 5s. Even without any wind in the afternoon, Laird used a driver on the 384-yard fifth hole to set up a simple pitch and another birdie. He closed his round with a 321-yard tee shot on the ninth and a 12-foot birdie.
Choi put in three hybrids to go with his driver and two fairway metals, all to get ready for the Masters. It paid dividends at Bay Hill with a tournament-best 64. Levin didn't play his best in the morning, but his putting carried him to a 70. Levin made all four of his birdie putts outside 15 feet to stay atop the leaderboard until Laird's late surge.
Tiger Woods is still in the game, too.
Woods raised his arm on the ninth green as his 20-foot birdie putt rolled in for a 4-under 68, leaving him six shots behind going into the weekend. Considering how so much of his year has gone, this would be considered progress for the six-time winner at Bay Hill.
Laird was at 9-under 135 entering today's third round (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2).
"I'm driving the ball really well and putting really well," Laird said. "Ask any pro -- that's a pretty good combination to have, especially on a golf course this long where you have to drive the ball in the fairway."
Temperatures are expected to soar on the weekend, and today figures to sort out several players still in the mix.
Charles Howell III, who needs a win to play his hometown tournament in two weeks at Augusta National, had a 65 and was three shots behind with Hunter Mahan and Steve Marino.
Mahan turned his fortunes around quickly. He went out in 38 to fall seven shots behind, then ran off four straight birdies to start the back nine, and finished with a shot that hit the pin on the 18th for his seventh birdie in a round of 69.
"My game didn't go anywhere . it just didn't feel good," Mahan said. "But it can change that quickly. So I knew that and I just had to trust that it was going to happen."
Choi had never shot better than 67 at Bay Hill, and he wasn't expecting a low one Friday. Along with changing his bag to include the three hybrids -- his irons begin with the 7-iron -- he saw Pat O'Brien last month to help with his putting and realized his posture was off. Choi then went back to his old putter, and that was a plus.
"I would never have thought that I would score 8 under today on a course like this," Choi said. "I'm just happy that I've done that, and I just want to keep this rhythm going on for the last two days."
Woods was five shots back in his season debut at Torrey Pines, only to fall apart on the weekend. This round was relatively clean, with his only bogey coming on the third hole when good contact out of the rough turned too much, bounced twice off the rocks framing the green and stayed in the hazard.
He got what he deserved, for while he missed a few putts inside 12 feet, he holed a 55-foot birdie putt from the fringe on the 18th with a putt that looked as though it would go some 5 feet by if the cup didn't get in the way.
That was a rarity. So many other times, his putt was on line and came up short.
"I had a hard time getting the ball to the hole today," Woods said.