The 2011 winner had been sitting in joint-103rd after an opening 77, which had seen him drop five shots in two holes at the end of his back nine, leaving him needing a marked improvement to be around for the weekend in the event’s first staging since Palmer’s passing away last September.
It came in the shape of a four-under-par 68 – one of the best early scores on the second day – that had jumped Laird, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour and back close to top form after suffering a bit of a dip, up 59 spots by the time he finished. The 34-year-old, who admits that getting to meet Palmer after that success six years ago had been the highlight of his career, found himself lying alongside Rory McIlroy on one-over after the world No 3 followed his first-round 74 with a 71.
Laird, who is flying the Saltire on his own this week as Knox prepares for next week’s WGC-Dell Match Play in Texas, birdied the fourth and sixth to be out in 34, dropped his only shot of the day at the start of the back nine before picking up shots at the 12th, 16th and 18th, taking four shots less at the latter than he did in the first round.
Sitting 111th in the world rankings, Laird needs to win either this event or the Houston Open in a fortnight’s time to join Knox and Lyle in the field at Augusta National, where he has played three times, including a tie for 20th on his debut in 2011.
McIlroy, who will head into the season’s opening major trying to complete a career Grand Slam, had another up-and-down day. The four-time major winner was one-over for the day after six before going eagle-double bogey-birdie in his next three holes. He then made one birdie and eight pars on the back nine.
The 27-year-old had headed straight to the practice ground after his opening effort, admitting: “My upper body’s just sort of outracing the club and I’m sort of leaving the club face open and I need to sort of square it up.”
Elsewhere, Kylie Henry set a personal putting record as the two-time LET winner got off to a promising start in the World Ladies Championship in China. The Scot required just 24 putts as she carded a four-under-par 69 at Mission Hills on Hainan Island to sit joint-fourth, two shots behind leader Georgina Hall. Henry, playing under her married name after landing her two triumphs as Walker, signed for seven birdies, including three in a row from the fifth.
“I’m really happy with that because I started on 10 and I was level par for the back nine and then four-under on my last nine holes,” she said.
“It’s a good score. I just putted really solidly today and had 24 putts, which is a record for me.”
Vikki Laing, who turned 36 earlier in the week, was next best among the Scots with a level-par 73 to sit joint-29th. It was a tough day, meanwhile, for Kelsey Macdonald and Pamela Pretswell as they had to settle for 78 and 79 respectively. In her first outing of the 2017 campaign, Pretswell had two double-bogeys on her card – at the ninth and 17th holes.