ORLANDO, Fla. >> Even with a bizarre sequence of events that cost Tiger Woods a comfortable lead Saturday, he walked off the 18th green at the Arnold Palmer Invitational as close as he has ever been to ending 30 months without a PGA Tour victory.
He was hitting the ball so well that Woods had the putter in his hand for a birdie attempt on 38 consecutive holes.
And he was at Bay Hill, where he already has won six times.
“If you’re in the lead, you’ve done some good things,” Woods said after recovering from a late double bogey for a 1-under 71. “That’s how I’ve always looked at it. And it’s a nice position to be in.”
Better yet would be posing with Palmer in a trophy presentation.
But there’s still one round to go before that happens, and a familiar face alongside him in the final group.
Graeme McDowell, the former U.S. Open champion who rallied from four shots behind to beat Woods in the Chevron World Challenge at the end of 2010, didn’t make a birdie until the 17th hole but kept bogeys off his card for a 71.
“There’s a fair bit of expectations on Tiger,” McDowell said. “He’s looking to complete the comeback tomorrow, because there’s no doubt he’s playing great. He’s got the ball under control. But he’s got to go out there and try to win tomorrow, the same way I do and a lot of other players that have got the opportunity to win.”
It will be the 40th time Woods has taken the lead into the final round on the PGA Tour. He has failed to win just twice, one of those times as a 20-year-old in his third start as a pro.
Woods was more interested in winning for the 72nd time on tour than the 30 months it has taken to get to this point.
“I’m looking forward to tomorrow. I’m looking forward to getting out there and playing and competing again,” Woods said. “As far as what it would mean? It would mean No. 72. Not a bad number, either.”
Woods last won a PGA Tour event at the BMW Championship on Sept. 13, 2009. He won in Australia two months later to close out his season, but his life changed forever a short time later in perhaps the most spectacular downfall of any athlete.
That all seems to be such a distant memory, even two weeks ago when he withdrew in the middle of the final round at Doral with tightness in his left Achilles tendon.
Woods cut a more familiar figure Saturday.
“It was a solid day,” said Woods, who was at 11-under 205. “Just happened to have one little fluke thing where a kid passed out.”
He had a four-shot lead after a birdie on the 13th hole when he made what he called his one bad swing, pulling his tee shot into a buried lie in the bunker on the 14th for a bogey.
On the 15th tee, an 18-year-old passed out and a woman screamed when she saw it — all while Woods was in the middle of his swing. He was too far along to stop, and hooked his tee shot out-of-bounds near a swimming pool.
That led to a double bogey, and McDowell tied him for the lead with his birdie on the 17th. Woods, however, hit a daring shot out of the fairway bunker and over the water to 20 feet for a two-putt birdie on the 16th to regain the lead.
Woods was runner-up at the Honda Classic three weeks ago when he closed with a 62, though he never had the outright lead. He was in the second-to-last group at Pebble Beach, though he closed with a 75 and watched Phil Mickelson rally for the win.
This time, it’s all on him.
And he’ll be alongside McDowell, who last August was asked whether Woods’ mystique had eroded. Woods had not played for three months because of leg injuries, and McDowell was asked if that red shirt meant anything.
“That’s his trademark,” McDowell said. “Really, I think that’s all it is right now. What it means to him is obviously a different thing. What it means to the rest of us … it’s not really something to be intimidated by anymore.”
McDowell is aware how well Woods is playing, and how dominant Woods can be in the game. His focus was on a Bay Hill course that was dry, firm and reminiscent of some U.S. Open setups.
“The golf course is going to be the main competitor tomorrow,” McDowell said.
Indeed, it might not be just them.
Ernie Els rekindled his hopes of getting into the Masters with six birdies in a round of 67 that left him only three shots behind. Ian Poulter had a 68 and also was tied for third, while Charles Howell III (68) and Sony Open winner Johnson Wagner (69) were four behind.
Els is No. 62 in the world and needs to crack the top 50 after Sunday to get an invitation to Augusta. He could get there by finishing alone in third place — provided Matteo Manassero doesn’t win in Morocco on the European Tour, or Howell doesn’t finish alone in second place at Bay Hill.
It gets complicated with the world ranking, even without a calculator. Els hasn’t even bothered to do the math.
“I know I’ve got to finish … really, almost winning. I’ve got to almost win, or something like that,” Els said. “But if I’m in, I’m in. And if I’m not, I’m just glad my game is coming around. Whatever happens, I feel like I can have a good year now. I feel like the hard work is starting to pay off.”
Els rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt on the ninth hole for a 32 on the front, getting him into the picture. His lone lapse came on the 15th, and he did well to escape with bogey. His ball was sitting slightly down in a fairway bunker, and Els hit the lip with his approach, the ball coming back into the sand. He blasted the next out onto the green and two-putted.
But he birdied the 16th, got up-and-down from a front bunker on the 17th, and knocked in a 15-foot birdie on the 18th. Even then, he was five shots behind against Woods, his longtime nemesis and a six-time at Bay Hill.
“I don’t want to talk too badly about Tiger, but hope he makes a couple of bogeys and I have a bit of a chance tomorrow,” Els said.
He laughed — and he got his wish.
Charlie Wi was tied with Woods for the 36-hole lead, but not for long. He started off pushing his shots to the right, made three bogeys out of the gate and fell back. Wi wound up with a 76 and was five shots behind.
He wasn’t the only one.
Jason Dufner, who turned 35 on Saturday, had a birthday to forget. After driving into the water on the par-5 sixth and making double bogey, he followed with three straight bogeys for a 42 on the front nine. He shot 77.
Bubba Watson was hanging around until he three-putted from just outside 3 feet for double bogey on the 11th. Doral winner Justin Rose twice made bogey on par 5s in a 74. Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia each shot 75.
McDowell was the only player who never left the lead pack, even though he made only one birdie. He got some help from Woods in the final hour, however, and now gets another shot at him.
“The atmosphere is going to be fantastic out there tomorrow, due to him being in the mix,” McDowell said