March 24, 2012

At 11-under, Woods holds one-shot lead at Bay Hill

Tiger Woods would prefer a bigger cushion, but he still owns the outright lead after three rounds of the $6 million Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Club & Lodge in Orlando, Fla.

On Saturday, Tiger shot a 1-under-par 71, giving him a 54-hole score of 11-under 205. That’s one better than Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell, who, like Woods, won a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links. Ernie Els and Ian Poulter are three strokes off the pace.

Woods, seeking his first PGA Tour victory since the 2009 BMW Championship, has won 48 of 52 times on the circuit when leading after 54 holes.

“I enjoy it,” said the 36-year-old Woods, who has captured 71 PGA Tour victories, including a record six at Bay Hill. “Means I’ve played well to get there. It’s not like I’m slashing it all over the place and happened to be at 11-under par. If you’re in the lead, you’ve done some good things. That’s how I’ve always looked at it, and it’s a nice position to be in.”

Paired in the final twosome on Saturday with Charlie Wi, Woods got off to a slow start in the sometimes-breezy conditions. After saving par at the first hole, Tiger bogeyed the 231-yard, par-3 second, where his tee shot carried over the green and he was unable to get up and down.

Woods two-putted for a par from long range at the par-4 third hole, then broke through with a birdie at the 561-yard, par-5 fourth hole.

After finding the fairway off the tee, he hit his second shot from 237 yards to within 39 feet of the cup and two-putted.

Following a two-putt par at No. 5, Woods added his second birdie at the 555-yard, par-5 sixth hole. He reached the green in two from 232 yards and two-putted from 96 feet.

Woods closed the front nine with three straight pars, missing birdie attempts of 19, 26 and 37 feet to make the turn in 1-under 35.

With the greens firming up and most pins tucked in difficult positions, Woods began the back nine by saving par at the par-4 10th, nearly holing his third shot from the left rough. At the 438-yard, par-4 11th, he hit a nice drive and knocked his approach shot from 160 yards 22 feet from the cup and sunk the birdie putt.

Woods drove into the left fairway bunker at the 574-yard, par-5 12th, but flushed a fairway wood just past pin-high in a swale on the left.

Faced with a difficult uphill pitch, and little green to work with, Tiger ran the shot off the green and two-putted for a par.

At the 370-yard, par-4 13th, Woods hit his second shot from 122 yards about 15 feet left of the cup and holed the birdie putt, the ball curling into the right edge to give him a four-stroke lead.

He dropped a shot at the 215-yard, par-3 14th, however, where he plugged a 5-iron into the left greenside bunker, blasted through the green and almost chipped in for par.

At the 467-yard, par-4 15th, Woods was unlucky while hitting a fairway wood off the tee. A woman at a nearby concession stand screamed during his back swing. He was later told the woman reacted after an 18-year-old boy fainted. Unable to stop his swing, Tiger hooked his drive way left and out of bounds. He sustained a double-bogey, his first in 248 holes this year.

“I tried to stop it but I passed the point of no return,” he said. “I stopped it and I just flipped it out of bounds.”

Woods rebounded quickly with a two-putt birdie at the par-5 16th, where he drove into the right fairway bunker and knocked his second shot on the green from 182 yards, just missing a 24-foot eagle try. He made a nice save at the 213-yard, par-3 17th, where he hit a 7-iron into the right greenside bunker, blasted four feet short of the cup and converted the par putt.

At the par-4 18th, Woods hit a good drive in the fairway and played to the center of the green with his approach shot, leaving a slick, 32-foot downhill putt. Tiger thought he made it, bending his knees, but the ball just missed left and he was able to make par by holing a four-footer.

On Saturday, he hit seven of 14 fairways and 61 percent of the greens, and used 29 putts.

“I played well all day,” Woods said. “The only bad shot I hit was there at 14. Fifteen was just one of those fluke things.”

He has done most of his damage on the par 5s, making four birdies on Friday and three on Saturday.

Thus far this week, Woods has made 47 of 49 putts from inside 10 feet, which ranks first in the field.

Woods and McDowell will tee off in the final twosome on Sunday at 2:05 p.m. ET.