ORLANDO, Fla. — The shot looked daunting to Tiger Woods, and so did the view from the bunker behind the eighth green at Bay Hill. Across a small lake was a large scoreboard that showed Justin Rose off to such a hot start that Woods was five shots behind and trying not to lose ground.
Two shots and two putts changed everything Saturday in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Woods hit what he called his best shot of the third round, a 6-iron from 196 yards that settled 12 feet below the hole on No. 15 to set up a birdie. Minutes later, he hit another 6-iron from 183 yards to 20 feet and slammed his fist toward the hole when he made eagle, his third in as three days.
Just like that, Woods was atop the leaderboard, a familiar spot for him on this golf course. He finished off his round of 6-under 66 with two pars, and when Rose lost energy and stumbled over the final hour, Woods had a two-shot lead.
And that’s a daunting view for everyone chasing him.
Woods is 41-2 on the PGA Tour when he has the outright lead going into the final round.
“Just because I’ve won here doesn’t ensure that I’m going to win the tournament,” Woods said. “The conditions are different. The game might be different. But the objective is still to put myself in position to win the golf tournament and somehow get it done on Sunday. Over the course of my career, I’ve done a pretty decent job of that.”
Woods was at 11-under 205, two shots ahead of Rickie Fowler (67), John Huh (71) and Rose, who through four holes Saturday was six shots ahead of Woods. Rose had a 39 on the back nine and wound up with a 72.
Rose had a three-shot lead on the back nine until he crumbled, making three bogeys over the last six holes. He attributed that to a lack of energy, perhaps from the muggy conditions, but didn’t mind his position.
“I just wanted to go out and play a good round of golf,” Rose said. “I wasn’t too worried whether I was two ahead or two behind. The real day is tomorrow. Obviously, you don’t want to give Tiger too many shots. The back nine was a shame, but today means nothing until tomorrow plays out. So hopefully, he doesn’t go get hot tomorrow and then today is just a memory.”
Rose didn’t even make it into the final group.
Fowler dropped only one shot on a muggy day with a short burst of showers, closing with a par from the back bunker on the 18th. He will play with Woods in the final round for the first time since the Memorial, where Woods closed with a 67 to win and Fowler had an 84.
Fowler was only three shots behind going into the final round of the Honda Classic at the start of the Florida swing and closed with a 74. He also had a bad Sunday at Doral (78), though he was never in serious contention. Without knowing where his 67 would leave him at Bay Hill, he sounded determined to finish stronger.
“It was disappointing to play the way I did those two Sundays, but I felt really good with where I was at, putting myself in position to go win a golf tournament or have a good finish and kind of taking myself out of it,” Fowler said. “So it was a little bit of a kick in the butt to go out there and finish off tournaments. So I’m looking forward to tomorrow and seeing if we can go do that.”
Nine players were separated by three shots going into the final round, though the dynamic takes on a different vibe at Bay Hill. Woods can tie a PGA Tour record for most victories at one tournament. Sam Snead won the Greater Greensboro Open eight times.
“I have a chance to win tomorrow,” Woods said.
More than just another trophy, and another greeting from the King, are on the line Sunday.
Woods is one round away from returning to No. 1 in the world, a place he hasn’t been since the last week in October in 2010. A year ago, Woods was No. 18 in the world and without a PGA Tour win for 2½ years. Now he is going for his third tour victory this year, and sixth dating to Bay Hill last season.
“It was one of my goals to get back to that position after being out of the top 50 there for a while, being hurt and having all my points come off when I couldn’t play,” Woods said. “That was not a fun stretch. But I had to get healthy in order to compete, and so far I’ve had five wins on tour. So I’m heading in the right direction.”
Thorbjorn Olesen of Denmark had a 66 and was in the group at 8-under 208, along with Jimmy Walker (70), Bill Haas (73), Ken Duke (70) and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano of Spain, who played with Woods and had a 68.
Woods narrowly beat the Spaniard a year ago in the opening round of the Match Play Championship. Fernandez-Castano noticed a big difference one year later.
“He’s definitely more comfortable,” he said. “I remember at the Match Play, his routine was longer. You could see he wasn’t confident with what he was doing.”
Woods, who already had won twice this year, has a clearer vision of what he’s doing and where the ball is going. He surged ahead with a 6-iron into 12 feet on the 15th for birdie, and another 6-iron into 20 feet on the 16th for an eagle that put him atop the leaderboard.
Woods has three eagles this week — and six for the year — compared with four eagles all of last season on the PGA Tour.
“I made a few putts, and that’s what I was pleased with today,” Woods said.
Some of the most important putts were for par. Woods finished Friday’s round with three straight bogeys, and he started Saturday with a 12-footer for par from behind the cup on the first hole. He poured that in, and it set the tone for the day.
Woods also made an 8-foot par putt on the fifth hole, and a 7-footer for par on No. 8. That was keeping him from losing ground, because there was nothing about the way Rose played that indicated he would come back to the field.
The turnaround was slow and steady, and then shockingly swift.
Rose opened with an 18-foot birdie on the first hole, a tap-in birdie on the third and then a 20-foot eagle putt from just short of the fourth green. At that point, Woods was six shots out of the lead after his two-putt birdie on the sixth. Woods followed with a 7-iron into 2 feet on the seventh, and two tough pars. He got up-and-down from the back bunker on No. 8, and then caught a huge break on the ninth when his tee shot was headed out-of-bounds and was hit a tree to stay in play.
Rose slowly began to leak. A three-putt from long range on the seventh. A missed 6-footer for par on the 10th. He still was three shots clear of Woods after a short birdie putt on the par-5 12th, and that’s when it change — and quickly.
Rose three-putted from 60 feet on the fringe at the 13th with a weak attempt at his second putt. Four groups ahead of him, Woods rolled in his 20-foot eagle putt, and just like that, they were tied. Rose compounded his problems with a shot he sliced so badly on the par-3 14th that it nearly went out-of-bounds, and he had to scramble for bogey to fall behind for the first time.
He failed to birdie the 16th, three-putted the 17th and suddenly was a forgotten figure on the leaderboard.
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