ORLANDO, Fla. — Five things you need to know from the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational:
1. STILL AHEAD: Even with a stunning drive out of bounds on the 15th hole, Tiger Woods remained in position Saturday to earn his first PGA Tour title in 2 1/2 years. Not that it was easy.
During a turbulent final nine holes at Bay Hill, Woods double-bogeyed the 15th hole after, he said, a female spectator yelled when a teenager collapsed near a concession stand. Woods couldn’t stop his downswing, leading to a massive hook OB, but he managed to shoot a 1-under 71 to take a one-stroke lead over Graeme McDowell heading into Sunday’s finale. “Just one of those fluke things,” Woods said, shrugging.
On Saturday, the former World No. 1 wasn’t nearly as sharp with his irons but continued to dominate the par 5s, playing them in 3 under. He’s 10 under for the week on the par 5s — and a startling 111 under for his career on those holes at Bay Hill, where he has won six times.
Even more remarkable: Woods putted for birdie on 38 consecutive holes until hitting into the greenside bunker on No. 14. He said afterward that the tee shot on 14, a par 3, was his only poor shot of the day, even though he posted his worst statistical numbers of the week (7 of 14 fairways, 11 greens).
Nonetheless, he has the lead going into the final round — a position from which Woods has converted 48 of 52 times in his career.
“I enjoy it,” he said of holding the lead. “That means I’ve played well to get here. 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.”
Since he won the unofficial, 18-player Chevron World Challenge in December, Woods has not finished outside the top 17 in his past four events in which he has played all 72 holes. He hasn’t won an official PGA Tour event since September 2009.
Asked the potential significance of a win Sunday, Woods said: “It would mean No. 72.”
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2. REMATCH?: Refocused after a disappointing 2011 season, Graeme McDowell has a chance to make a huge statement playing in the final group Sunday with Woods.
Sound familiar? It was McDowell, remember, who took down Woods at the 2010 Chevron Challenge, where the Northern Irishman won after overcoming a four-shot deficit with birdies on No. 18 in regulation and in the playoff.
At the time, Woods was four months into his swing overhaul with coach Sean Foley, able to shape the ball in only one direction and uncomfortable with his new action under pressure. McDowell, meanwhile, was in the midst of his breakout season in which he not only won a major but earned the clinching point for the Europeans in the Ryder Cup.
Neither McDowell nor Woods has won an official event since.
“There’s a fair bit of expectation on Tiger,” McDowell said. “You know, he’s trying to complete the comeback tomorrow, because there’s no doubt that 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.”
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3. FINISH HIGH . . . OR ELS: Not yet eligible for the first major of the year, Ernie Els likely needs a solo third or better this week to extend his consecutive starts streak at the Masters to 19.
The top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking after this week’s tournament are exempt for the Masters. Els, who has played at Augusta every year since 1994, is currently No. 62.
The Big Easy at least gave himself a chance heading into Sunday, firing a third-round 67 to match the low round of the day and move into a share of third.
“If I’m in, I’m in, and if I’m not, I’m just glad my game is coming around,” said Els, who is expected to play next week’s Shell Houston Open. “Whatever happens, I feel like I can have a good year now. I feel like the hard work is starting to pay off.”
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4. SIGNS OF LIFE: Ian Poulter, winless on the PGA Tour since February 2010, could be in the mix come Sunday after a third-round 68 moved him into a tie for third.
“Sure, there’s some major champions on that board, so tomorrow is going to be another tough day,” Poulter said. “I think I’ll have to be patient, take your chances when you get them and we’ll see what comes tomorrow.”
The Englishman, who has slipped to No. 29 in the world ranking, hasn’t fared well on either side of the pond since his victory in November at the Australian Masters. He’s finished no better than T-45 in his past three stroke-play events worldwide.
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5. SHORT SHOTS: Charlie Wi, who entered the final round tied for the lead, bogeyed his first three holes on his way to a 76 on Saturday. He is five back heading into the final round. … Jason Dufner, who began the day one stroke back, again failed to follow up on a promising start, crashing to a 77 in Round 3. … Seung-yul Noh shot a 67 on Saturday to move from 47th to T-14, at 3-under 213. … Sony Open winner Johnson Wagner (69) is tied for fifth after three rounds. His best finish since February has been a tie for 13th at Doral. … Woods’ double-bogey 6 on the 15th hole Saturday was his first double bogey on Tour in 248 holes, dating to the Honda Classic.