ORLANDO – Tiger Woods is still not out of it at Bay Hill, but he will need a huge Sunday charge if he has any hopes of capturing his ninth title at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
The 42-year-old fired a 3-under 69 in the third round at Bay Hill, putting him in the clubhouse at 7 under. After 54 holes, Woods was in a tie for 10th and five back of leader Henrik Stenson.
But at least the hope still glimmers.
For the second straight day, Woods did himself no favors with an early bogey. After an opening bogey in Round 2, Woods put one on the board at the par-3 second Saturday when his tee shot found a bunker and he couldn’t coax a 10-footer in for par.
But he quickly ensured this wouldn’t be a repeat of a difficult Friday. The following hole, Woods buried a 38-footer for birdie. He made it back-to-back when he chipped to 6 feet at the par-5 fourth and knocked in the birdie putt.
It was three birdies in four holes when Woods drained a 15-footer at the par-5 sixth. By that point, he had reached 2 under for the day, 6 under overall and was just five back in a tie for seventh.
But the round stalled over the next few holes. A poor drive into the right rough with a 3-wood led to a lay up at the par-4 eighth. He bogeyed when he couldn’t get an 11-footer to drop.
Woods was still 1 under for the round as he prepared for his approach shot at the par-4 11th. He then knocked one from 185 yards to just inside 10 feet and drained the birdie putt to move back to 6 under overall.
Again, though, he couldn’t build immediately. The next hole was a par 5, but Woods could only produce a par. He tacked on three more after that.
Woods produced his highlight of his day, though, at the par-5 16th. His tee shot found a fairway bunker right, and his ball was near a small lip as he faced 209 yards for his second shot.
He decided to take a risk.
Woods went for the green. He just got his ball to clear the lip, but it soared all the way to the back of the green, some 15 feet from the cup. There was now a chance for a raucous eagle, but Woods’ putt was always low and trickled more than 4 feet past. His birdie comebacker barely curled in the right side of the cup but did indeed drop.
He was now 3 under for the day and 7 under overall.
In fact, he had moved to within four while playing the par-3 17th as Stenson and Bryson DeChambeau both bogeyed No. 10 in the meantime. But Woods gave the stroke right back when his tee shot floated right and ended up in a fried egg in the right greenside bunker.
From there, he blasted just beyond the green some 20 feet past the cup and made bogey when he couldn’t get that one to fall.
Woods did blast a 3-wood down the par-4 18th, though, and wedged to 12 feet. He drained the putt for a closing birdie, offering a fist pump to go with it.
Was it a spectacular day for Woods? No. But he looked comfortable throughout and put up six birdies.
Actually, he looked WAY more comfortable than he did on Friday. Woods found 9/14 fairways and hit 13/18 greens in regulation. His driving was much more on point in this round, with no wild misses and two of his drives not in the fairway being in the intermediate rough.
His approach was solid, with some spectacular shots and other well executed ones. A few loose ones remained, though, and his distance control remained shaky at times.
Woods’ work around the greens was decent, but definitely not magical like it has been a lot in this comeback. His putter, though, kept things rolling. That 38-footer early helped, but Woods then made four more birdie putts between 6-15 feet. And he added in a key par saver from 8 feet at the par-3 14th as well.
So we’re 54 holes in and Woods has battled to this position. He has done well, as Woods is on the fringes of contention entering Sunday. Another promising finish a week after a T-2 is likely.
But without a Sunday Tiger charge of old, that win will remain elusive for another week.