In the toughest final round on the PGA Tour this year, Laird rallied from a three-shot deficit with four holes to play with two birdies and two remarkable pars to close with a 3-over 75 and win the Arnold Palmer Invitational by one shot over hard-luck Steve Marino.
The 28-year-old Scot became the first European to win at Bay Hill in its 33-year history.
He just never imagined it would play out like this.
Laird’s two-shot lead was gone at the turn, and when he pulled a bunker shot into the water on No. 11 to make double bogey, he already was 5-over par for his round and fading quickly.
But a day of survival for everyone else turned into a revival for Laird.
After a bogey on the par-3 14th to fall three shots behind Marino, Laird holed a 20-foot birdie putt on the 15th, an 18-foot birdie putt on the 16th, saved par from behind the 17th green and two-putted from just inside 90 feet on the final hole.
It was the highest score in the final round by a Bay Hill champion, and it took Laird’s best golf to do that on a course that at times made it feel like the U.S. Open had moved to late March.
No one in the last three groups broke par, and those six players were a combined 19-over par.
Laird needed some help from Marino, who played beautifully until the last four holes. Marino took bogey from a plugged lie in the bunker short of the 15th green, then made double bogey from a plugged lie in the sand short of the 17th hole. He went from a one-shot lead to a two-shot deficit when Laird birdied the 16th in the group behind.
Marino at least gave himself a chance on the last hole with a gutsy play over the water to 8 feet for birdie and a 72. It was the third close call this year for Marino, who has yet to win on the PGA Tour.
Justin Rose closed with a 68 and tied for third with David Toms and Marc Leishman, who needed to win to get into the Masters.
Tiger Woods, a six-time winner at Bay Hill, was poised for a second straight top 10 until he made bogey from the bunker on the 17th and hit his approach into the water on No. 18 for double bogey and a 72. In his final tournament before the Masters, Woods tied for 24th, seven shots behind.
Phil Mickelson dropped three shots on the last five holes for a 73 to also finish in a tie for 24th.
Laird won for the second time in his PGA Tour career, and the record will show that he won for the first time in three tries when going into the final round atop the leaderboard.
But it wasn’t that simple. Not even close.
Palmer, the tournament host, prefers a stern test at his beloved Bay Hill, and that’s what he got, especially in the afternoon when the wind picked up and the course dried out even more under a hot sun.
“The back-nine pins, they are all bogey and double-bogey pins — they are not birdie pins,” Mickelson said when he finished. “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, tucked right behind the bunker, and his ball plugged in the soft sand. He blasted out to 35 feet and made bogey. Then came the 17th, and a 6-iron that he thought was good all the way until the crowd groaned.
He blasted out over the green, putted up the slope to 5 feet and missed the bogey putt.
“I played so well all day, and you know, one hiccup on 17 cost me the tournament,” he said.
Laird finished at 8-under 280, the highest winning score since Ben Crenshaw shot 280 in 1993. Laird earned $1.08 million, and a validation after tough playoff losses at The Barclays and in Las Vegas late last year.
Spencer Levin, who played in the final group and started two shots behind, shot 41 on the front nine and still was in the game toward the end. He wound up with a 76 and tied for sixth.
Laird got off to such a shaky start that it only took an hour for more players to have a chance than who started the final round. He made three bogeys to go out in 39 and was tied with Marino when he headed to the back nine.
Others who got into contention faded quickly, and it didn’t take much. It wasn’t a U.S. Open, but it seemed that way at times.
Rickie Fowler saw his hopes end with a bizarre sequence of events. From a fairway bunker on the eighth, his shot clanged off a hospitality tent, over a 12-foot hedge and into a maintenance building, out of bounds. When he dropped back in the bunker, there is so much sand in the traps that it plugged slightly. He had to pitch out and took triple bogey.
David Toms reached 8 under, only one shot behind at one point, until driving behind a tree, pitching out and hitting into the skirt of a hospitality tent on No. 8 and making double bogey.
Woods again had the largest crowd — far more than the 100 or so fans that tailed the final group of Laird and Levin — and played a solid round until his bogey-double bogey finish.
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,” he said.