Lots of options at Bay Hill as Love leads

ORLANDO: Several players at Bay Hill are tuning up for the Masters.

Davis Love III is trying to get into the Masters.

This is the third straight year Love has been in this predicament, playing the Florida swing with no guarantee the road will lead down Magnolia Lane. That includes a demoralizing finish last year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Love missed the cut, but still could have made the top 50 in the world ranking when the tournament came down to the final hour. His last hope was for Pat Perez to make double bogey, and it almost happened when Perez — trying to win the tournament — fired at the flag and cleared the rocks framing the water by no more than a foot.

Love wound up at No. 51 by four-hundredths of a point.

It can drive a player crazy, which is why Love is trying not to think about such things. He got into trouble earlier this year when he tied for fifth in the Sony Open and started thinking ahead to all the great things that might follow — a return trip to the Masters for the first time since 2007, maybe even a spot on the Ryder Cup team for the first time since 2004.

So what happened?

He missed the cut in his next four tournaments.

Love has fallen to No. 89 in the world ranking, too far down to crack the top 50 with anything short of a victory. Then again, a victory comes with an automatic invitation to the Masters.

If nothing else, it's clear what he has to do this week. Love took a good first step on Thursday with an amazing stretch early in his round and a strong finish for a 6-under 66 to share the lead with J.B. Holmes.

Love already is looking ahead — but only to Friday.

"All I've got to do is be patient and stay out of my own way," Love said, "and I'll be OK."

He was tested immediately.

His approach to the first green plugged in a bunker, and Love barely got it out, leaving him 70 feet away for par, and he was quite happy to walk off that green with bogey. Then came his tee shot on the par-3 second hole, which came up short and left him a chip that swung sharply to the left by some 40 feet. Another bogey appeared imminent.

Instead, Love chipped that in for birdie and he was on his way. He made 12-foot birdie on the third, chipped in from 70 feet for eagle on the par-5 fourth, knocked in another birdie putt on No. 5 and hit a 4-iron to 10 feet for a two-birdie on the sixth.

Keeping his card was Daniel Chopra, who marks the scores with a pen that has four colors.

"I had all kinds of colors all over my scorecard," Love said. "It was very pretty."

So was the finish.

Love made birdie from the bunker on the par-5 16th, rolled in a 45-foot birdie putt on the 17th, then finished his round with an 8-foot par putt after his approach went long into deep rough.

Where will this lead?

All Love knows for sure is that he will be playing in the Houston Open next week, and then at Hilton Head a week later. The Masters? He would hate to miss it, although that's not a priority at the moment.

"It's always in the back of your mind — or the front of your mind," Love said. "After a few weeks where I played kind of poorly ... I was just mentally kind of frazzled. I just said, 'You're going to have to just to play the ones you get in and do the best job you can and quit worrying about everything else.'"

Love has never won Palmer's tournament at Bay Hill, although he has come close. He finished a shot out of a playoff in 1999, then was runner-up to Tiger Woods a year later.

Woods is not playing Bay Hill, where he is the two-time defending champion, for the first time in his PGA Tour career. He will play for the first time since his sex scandal in two weeks at the Masters.

Holmes' fortunes also changed quickly, although this was only one hole. After a good tee shot, his ball was in a divot, causing him to send his pitching wedge to the top tier of the green. He rolled in a 40-foot birdie putt, added an eagle two holes later on the par-5 12th and made it around the revamped Bay Hill course without a bogey.

Mike Weir of Canada had a rare moment when he reached a par 5 from a fairway bunker at No. 12 to set up one of his eight birdies on his way to a 5-under 67, tied with Henrik Stenson of Sweden.

Ernie Els, playing for the first time since his victory at Doral, was in the group at 68 that included Robert Allenby, who was atop the leaderboard at 6 under until putting his approach into the water and making double bogey.

Steve Stricker had a 69, while Phil Mickelson and Innisbrook winner Jim Furyk were among those at 71.