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Holmes takes early lead at Bay Hill
J.B. Holmes lines up a putt on the 17th green during the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament at Bay Hill in Orlando, Fla., Thursday, March 25, 2010. - photo by Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. — Davis Love III is trying not to look ahead and concern himself only with the tournaments on his schedule. He gave himself reason to hope Thursday that the Masters might still be on the list.

Love chipped in twice during a five-hole stretch that he played in 6 under early in his round, then finished strong with a 45-foot birdie and an 8-foot par putt that felt just as good for a 6-under 66 and a share of the lead in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

J.B. Holmes, among the early starters, played bogey-free in calm conditions and also had a 66.

Love is in a position that has become all too familiar of late. He has only two weeks left to earn a trip to Augusta National, which he has not played the last two years. His only chance is to win at Bay Hill or next week in the Houston Open.

He knows that. He's just trying not to think about it.

"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 said.

He did a good job of that Thursday at Bay Hill, even after opening with a bogey from a plugged lie in the bunker. Then he came up short of the par-3 second hole, and that's where it all changed.

Love chipped in for birdie, holed a 12-foot birdie putt on the third hole, and chipped in for eagle from short of the par-5 fourth green. Then came another birdie from about 15 feet, and a 4-iron to 10 feet on the par-5 sixth that he two-putted for a birdie.

Just like that, he was near the top of the leaderboard.

"I kept it in play and kept myself either chipping or putting for birdie all day," he said.

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 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.

Love reminded himself not to think ahead when he started the season. He shot four rounds in the 60s at Waialae and tied for fifth at the Sony Open, and just like that, his mind shifted to October and the Ryder Cup. He last played on a team in 2004.

He has not made a cut since then.

"I've done it for 25 years — had one good week and then start trying too hard," Love said.

Sports psychologist Bob Rotella reminded Love of something David Duval had said years ago, when one of his friends asked if he was going to practice putting. Duval replied, "I already know how to putt."

"I already know how to play golf," said Love, a 20-time winner on the PGA Tour. "I just have to quit trying so hard and go play."

Most everyone enjoyed playing Bay Hill, especially after the tournament host served up a massive overhaul. Palmer refurbished all the greens and tee boxes, and instead of heavy rough around the greens, he created shaved areas for chipping.

No one took advantage quite like Love, especially when he came up 70 feet short on the par-5 fourth. He thought about putting, then considered a chip-and-run before settling on a lofted pitch shot that he holed for an eagle.

"Last year, it would have been just hacking it out of the rough, trying to get it up on the green," Love said. "So I think it's a great way to play, and it's a great style for the fans. I think it's more fun to watch."