ORLANDO, Fla. – Saturday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational felt and looked like 2008 or 2009. Or any of the first four years of the new millennium, the other times Tiger Woods ruled as king of Bay Hill.
Until an unfortunate yell on the 15th tee, that is.
Woods had been rolling along, controlling his ball beautifully and padding his lead and looking like the terminator of old. Until he found a bunker on the left side of the par-3 14th green, he had birdie putts on 38 consecutive holes. Until the bogey there, he had a four-shot lead.
Then a woman at a nearby concession stand yelled in the middle of his downswing at 15, and he hooked a drive out of bounds. Woods immediately dropped his 3-wood and reacted in disgust if not disbelief. His ball ended up in someone’s backyard and provided a photo opportunity for residents who huddled around the ball.
Woods’ subsequent understanding was that the woman screamed when an 18-year-old “passed out” and fell to the ground by the stand.
“I tried to stop (the swing) but couldn’t and flipped it out of bounds,” Woods said. “It was just one of those fluke things.”
The chain of events led to his first double bogey on the PGA Tour in 248 holes. It also dropped his lead at the time to one over 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, a margin that held up through three rounds.
The big picture is Woods is striking the ball better than he has in some time and seems poised to win on Tour for the first time in about 30 months, since September 2009. He had birdie putts on every hole from his 11th hole in the first round through the 13th Saturday.
He had gone so long without chipping, you figured he might have forgotten how. It wasn’t all that surprising then that his eagle chip on the par-5 12th hole rolled off the green to the fringe.
What’s more, Woods went 29 holes without a bogey until he three-putted No. 2 from 65 feet from the back left fringe.
Little wonder, then, that Woods said he is pleased with all parts of his game. Asked if he feels he’s controlling his ball better than he has since 2009, he said with a straight face, “Absolutely.”
Asked to elaborate, he said, “I am.”
You got the sense he wasn’t pleased that his lead was just one stroke, that he felt it should’ve been three or so.
“It was a solid day,” said Woods, who called his pulled approach at 14 his lone bad shot of the round. “I just happened to have a fluke thing where a kid passed out.”
Woods has won 48 of the 52 times he has at least shared a 54-hole lead on Tour. But those closes came before his personal life became the focus.
Considering the circumstances, Sunday would be a big day for him even if we weren’t heading to the Masters.
Sunday is his most interesting litmus test since his last 54-hole lead in 2009, since he hit that hydrant, since he started overhauling his swing with Sean Foley in summer 2010.
Sunday has become “Will he?” or “Won’t he?” We didn’t used to ask those questions, back when the aura was in full bloom.
Sunday could represent his biggest stride since he started piecing his game and life back together. He probably hasn’t faced this much pressure since he dueled Y.E. Yang down the stretch at the 2009 PGA Championship.
“I’m looking forward to tomorrow,” Woods said. “I’m looking forward to getting out there and playing and competing again.”
What would victory mean to him?
“It would mean No. 72,” said the winner of 71 Tour titles, including 14 majors. “Not a bad number, either.”
He’s not the only one relishing the opportunity. McDowell, his closest pursuer and Sunday playing competitor, is hoping for an outcome like at the 2010 Chevron World Challenge, where he outdueled Woods down the stretch.
This isn’t the same Woods as then, though. Some four months into his work with Foley, he was more one-dimensional then. Woods clearly has more control of all shots now.
McDowell knows that. He saw it first hand on Tuesday at the Tavistock Cup, where he played with Woods and marveled at the former No. 1’s command.
McDowell also knows what to expect Sunday.
“I feel I’ve acclimated nicely to playing with him,” McDowell said. “It’s not really the intimidation factor of him. It’s more the kind of circus that goes with him – the media, the cameras, just everything. … There will be a few beers on board and it will be pretty raucous out there, I’m sure.”
The Ulsterman is smart enough to know he needs to play the course, not the man.
“He’s not going to be able to tackle me, thank goodness,” McDowell said. “All I’ve got to do is just play my golf ball.”