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Friday's roundup: Hoffman fires 65, goes up 3 at Palmer

Associated Press

Orlando, Fla. — Equipped with his first PGA Tour lead in 67 starts, Morgan Hoffmann played Friday like he wanted to keep it in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Hoffman made birdies on half of his holes for a 7-under 65, giving him a three-shot lead over Henrik Stenson, Harris English and defending champion Matt Every going into the weekend on soft and defenseless Bay Hill.

Stenson, English and Every each had a 66.

Rory McIlroy also got into the mix — finally — by making five straight birdies on his back nine for a 66, his first sub-70 score in three PGA Tour events this year. He was five shots behind and headed in the right direction in his final start before the Masters.

Bay Hill has greens that are so stressed that they will be replaced this summer. They are slow and receptive, a recipe for low scoring, and it shows.

Hoffmann was at 13-under 131, one short of the 36-hole record at Bay Hill. The cut was at 142, matching the lowest score to make the cut in 27 years at Bay Hill. It was the first time the cut was under par, but only because the tournament changed par to 70 (instead of 72) in 2008.

"I'm trying to birdie every hole out there, so it was good," Hoffmann said. "Just hitting great putts and good shots into the greens really helps. It's nice to hit some greens for a change. This year hasn't been that great, and it's a good change."

The 25-year-old from Oklahoma State made six birdies on the front nine, including four in a row, and he finished with a 6-iron out of the rough and over the water — the ball landed just four paces onto the green — for a par that kept him in control.

Hoffmann came into the week at No. 158 in the "strokes gained" statistic from tee-to-green. He leads the field at Bay Hill.

Next up is how well he holds up on the weekend.

Stenson, who has finished fourth in his two Florida events already, birdied his last four holes for a 30 on the back nine. He will be playing in the penultimate group with English, who is No. 52 in the world just outside qualifying for the Masters.

"Got to keep the pedal down and keep aggressive," English said.

He is coming off a top-10 at Innisbrook in which he closed with a 65, which moved him up eight spots in the ranking.

McIlroy had dinner with Palmer on Thursday night and was treading water Friday morning until an 18-foot birdie putt on the par-3 second hold got him going. He birdied the next four holes, though he lost some momentum at the end with a bogey on No. 8 and a scrambling par on his final hole.

"It would be nice to finish the round off a little better, but still a good score and sets me up well for the weekend," McIlroy said. "I think each and every day I'm feeling a little more comfortable, especially on the greens. Obviously, we played in the morning so we got the best of the greens, and it's easier to trust the lines you pick for yourself. But happy with how I putted today, and putt like that over the weekend, I'll have a chance."

A lot of that depends on Hoffmann, who is coming off a pair of 12-hour range sessions this weekend to try to rely on a slight fade.

Every has only one top-10 since he won at Bay Hill a year ago, and he has not finished in the top 25 in his last 17 tournaments. But he is confident he is headed in the right direction with his swing, and it showed for two days. He ran off four straight birdies at the end of his round for a 66 and was at 134.

"I'm really excited to play golf because I know I have good stuff coming really, really soon," Every said. "And I said before, you can lie to yourself. I've done it before all the time where I think I can win at the start of weeks. It's like probably how Rory feels every week."

McIlroy, playing in Palmer's tournament for the first time, had dinner with the King on Thursday night after his opening round (and a drug test). They chatted more about commercial possibilities and old-time golf stories than McIlroy's bid to win the Masters and complete the career Grand Slam.

Palmer also insisted the 25-year-old McIlroy have a banana split.

"I'll be going to the gym this afternoon," McIlroy said. "It was fantastic, it really was. He's telling stories of the old days and talking about a few of the things he's done more from a commercial standpoint, the drink and golf courses and all this sort of stuff — stuff that I could potentially be getting into in the future."

He said Palmer also told him how close he was to his father.

"It was just great to be in his presence, and great to be in his company, and I had a good time," McIlroy said.

Jang heads LPGA field

Ha Na Jang topped the crowded leaderboard Friday when darkness ended play at the LPGA Tour's JTBC Founders Cup.

Jang birdied her final four holes to reach 11 under with seven holes left in the second round. She opened with a 4-under 68 on Thursday at Desert Ridge in Phoenix.

Fellow South Korean player Hyo Joo Kim was a stroke back.

Kim played 30 holes Friday in the tournament that fell behind Thursday when rain delayed the start four hours. The Evian winner last year in France for her first major title, she completed a 65 in the first round and had a 69 in the second.

"I was sleepy this morning," Kim said. "I just played relaxed and I just think to myself, 'Hit soft.' That's the key for me."

Only half of the 132 players finished the second round.

Stacy Lewis and Kim Kaufman were 9 under.

Lewis, the 2013 winner, also played 30 holes. She opened with a 64, making seven birdies in a nine-hole stretch to take the first-round lead, and had a 71 in the afternoon.

"I didn't do too much different other than I just got on the wrong side of the hole," Lewis said. "The first round, I basically gave myself a lot of uphill putts, and then it was downhill, sidehill swingers. You're not going to make very many of them."

Kaufman bogeyed her final hole of the day, the par-4 12th.

Top-ranked Lydia Ko was in the group at 7 under with eight holes left. The 17-year-old New Zealander opened with a 66 on Thursday and was 1 under in the second round.

Michelle Wie, paired with Ko, was 1 under overall after opening with a 73.

Karrie Webb, who won last year and also in 2011, shot 67-70 playing alongside Lewis.

Ace helps Smith to Champions lead

Jerry Smith had a hole-in-one and shot a 7-under 65 to take the first-round lead in the Champions Tour's inaugural Tucson Conquistadores Classic.

The 50-year-old Smith used a 5-iron on the 212-yard seventh hole — his 16th hole of the day — on Tucson National's Catalina Course. He played the final nine holes in 6-under 30, making birdies on Nos. 2, 3, 6 and 8.

Based in Scottsdale, Smith earned fully exempt status on the 50-and-over tour in November with a tie for third at Q-school. He won the Asian Tour's 1998 Guam Open and made 153 PGA Tour starts.

Colin Montgomerie, David Frost, Steve Pate and Marco Dawson were tied for second at 67.

Kirk Triplett, the winner of the PGA Tour's final Tucson Open in 2006 at Tucson National, was three strokes back at 68 along with Bart Bryant and Corey Pavin.