ORLANDO, Fla. — In their own way, Jason Gore and Tiger Woods changed their fortunes Thursday at Bay Hill.
Gore wasn’t seeing any results from an overhaul to his swing until he ran off three birdies over the final four holes for a 5-under 65 that gave him a one-shot lead in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Woods was in the water, in the trees and in a foul mood until he had eight consecutive one-putts — including four straight birdies — that put him in a good frame of mind with a 68 on a course where he has won five times as a pro.
“I was not hitting it well, and I had to scramble and grind it out and manage to score,” Woods said. He managed just fine, taking only 24 putts in the first round after ranking 74th in putting out of 79 players at Doral two weeks ago.
Tim Herron, who won Bay Hill in a playoff 10 years ago, and Jeff Overton had a 66, while the group at 67 included the ever-present Nick Watney and Mark Wilson, who had reason to feel outclassed on the first tee but more than held his own.
Wilson was in the same group as Woods and Padraig Harrington, who have won five of the last six majors. Wilson has his own history with Woods, having lost a late lead in 1992 when Woods rallied to win his second U.S. Junior Amateur.
But Wilson had the best day of the threesome.
Harrington saved par from the water on the 18th for a 70.
“I had a good time out there,” said Wilson. “I love playing with Tiger. The electricity and the energy on that first tee is something else with him.”
Imagine the surge on the opening hole, when Woods had a difficult flop shot from about 30 yards that had to carry a bunker.
Wilson wondered if Woods might begin his title defence at Bay Hill with a double bogey. Then he watched Woods’ shot pitch about six feet from the hole and roll like a putt into the cup for birdie.
Woods hit a tee shot into the water at No. 6 for double bogey, was lucky to escape with pars at the turn and made four birdies on the back nine to get off to a good start.
The only other player at Bay Hill with such charisma is Palmer, the tournament host.
Gore can attest to that.
He was 11 when his family went to Pittsburgh one summer and Gore had his mother drive him to Latrobe Country Club.
They walked into the pro shop and asked if the King was around, and before long Palmer drove up in a cart that looked like a tractor.
“He took a picture with us, signed a scorecard and he said, ‘Son, I’m going to go hit balls. Would you like to come watch?”’ Gore said. “I sat right on the little slope right behind the first tee and watched Mr. Palmer hit balls for about 45 minutes.
“And, from that point on, I knew I wanted to be a professional golfer.”
Gore is a PGA Tour winner, but the golf hasn’t gone so well lately.
He lost his PGA Tour card last year, then decided after Q-school to work with Mike Abbott and redo his swing. Gore wouldn’t ordinarily make it to an event like the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but he received an exemption.
That was no accident.
Gore told Palmer last year at a corporate outing how much he had influenced his life. When he saw him earlier this month at Seminole, he thanked Palmer for the exemption.
Palmer winked at him and replied: “I never forgot that story.”
“The littlest things he does for a punk dressed in surf clothes who was trespassing on his property changes lives,” Gore said. “He’s got that power, and that’s what makes him the King.
“And that’s why he’s the greatest person to this game.”