Laird was the first of the trio back into action in the £5.8million Players Championship at Sawgrass and made further good progress until he came to the famed closing stretch.
The Glaswegian found the water with his second shot to the long 16th and then hit a shocking tee shot on the short 17th to find the same lake.
They cost him a bogey six and a double bogey five and the sad finish was complete when he left a chip well short on the last and bogeyed again.
It meant a one-over-par 73 to go with his brilliant opening 65 and, having fallen from 10 under par to six under, he was suddenly two behind new pacesetter Zach Johnson, round in 66 even with a closing bogey.
"That's what this course will do to you," he said.
"I got a bit greedy with a four iron to the 16th - it was a stupid shot - and was between clubs at the 17th.
"A nine iron was too much and a wedge not enough, but I didn't hit it real solid and the wind got it. It was a bad shot.
"But as big a car crash as I just had I'm still well in it. I'd have taken my position before the start."
Poulter's start was the thing that sent him back into the pack.
He went over the green at the 10th - his first of the day - chipped poorly and three-putted for a double bogey.
It was not long before another came. The pin was back right on the short 13th, but Poulter went short left into the water.
The Englishman steadied the ship after adding a bogey on the 15th, but turned in 40 and, like Luke Donald (69) and Lee Westwood (70), was five behind Johnson.
By then McIlroy was on his way home, a 76 putting him out of the event at the halfway stage for the third time in three visits.
"There's something about this course I can't quite get to grips with," said the Northern Irishman, who could lose top spot on the rankings to Donald or Westwood.
"It's disappointing - I'm not going to lie.
"I've been playing well for the last 12 months. This is my first missed cut for a year.
"I'll get ready now for the big tournaments coming up."
Next is the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in a fortnight and his US Open defence is little more than a month away.
He vowed to return next May to try again - last year he skipped the event - but said: "I'm a visual player and I struggle to see the tee shots required here."
Tiger Woods resumed two over and probably needing a four-stroke improvement on his opening 74 to avoid a second successive missed cut for the first time in his career.
It was shaping up to be a far better day for the 14-major winner. Birdies at the fourth, eighth, ninth and 10th and just the one dropped shot on the fifth lifted him from 100th to 47th.
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Donald eagled the 16th and second, first hitting a five-iron to six feet and then making a 20-footer, but then undid some of his good work before a closing birdie on the ninth.
"It could have been a special round," he said.
"I threw in a couple of bad swings, but 69 is not a bad score.
"I am quietly optimistic. I think this course is only to get tougher and eight or nine under could be a good score come Sunday."
Westwood said: "I didn't play as well as yesterday [Thursday], but shot one better - that's golf.
"I'm playing all right. I like this course and it suits me.
"I suppose three under is in touch. Hopefully it will firm up and the greens will get quicker."
Laird and Poulter were not the only British golfers high up the leaderboard. London's Brian Davis, based in the States like Laird, stood six under after a 70.
But McIlroy's fellow Irishman Graeme McDowell, who led by three late in the third round last year, was in danger of missing by one on one over.
And Padraig Harrington, handily placed at three under when he set off again, double-bogeyed the 10th like Poulter and with seven to play was one under.
Woods made it four birdies in a row after a majestic second to the long 11th - and only just missed for another on the next.
He was up to two under and joint 30th, an improvement of 70 places already on the day.