ORLANDO, Fla. — The shot looked daunting to Tiger Woods, and so did the view from the bunker behind the eighth green at Bay Hill. Across a small lake was a large scoreboard that showed Justin Rose off to such a hot start that Woods was five shots behind and trying not to lose ground.
Two shots and two putts changed everything Saturday in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Woods hit what he called his best shot of the third round, a 6-iron from 196 yards that settled 12 feet below the hole on No. 15 to set up a birdie. Minutes later, he hit another 6-iron from 183 yards to 20 feet and slammed his fist toward the hole when he made eagle, his third in as three days.
Just like that, Woods was atop the leaderboard, a familiar spot for him on this golf course. He finished off his round of 6-under 66 with two pars, and when Rose lost energy and stumbled over the final hour, Woods had a two-shot lead.
And that’s a daunting view for everyone chasing him.
Woods is 41-2 on the PGA Tour when he has the outright lead going into the final round.
“Just because I’ve won here doesn’t ensure that I’m going to win the tournament,” Woods said. “The conditions are different. The game might be different. But the objective is still to put myself in position to win the golf tournament and somehow get it done on Sunday. Over the course of my career, I’ve done a pretty decent job of that.”
Woods was at 11-under 205, two shots ahead of Rickie Fowler (67), John Huh (71) and Rose, who through four holes Saturday was six shots ahead of Woods. Rose had a 39 on the back nine and wound up with a 72.
Rose had a three-shot lead on the back nine until he crumbled, making three bogeys over the last six holes. He attributed that to a lack of energy, perhaps from the muggy conditions, but didn’t mind his position.
“I just wanted to go out and play a good round of golf,” Rose said. “I wasn’t too worried whether I was two ahead or two behind. The real day is tomorrow. Obviously, you don’t want to give Tiger too many shots. The back nine was a shame, but today means nothing until tomorrow plays out. So hopefully, he doesn’t go get hot tomorrow and then today is just a memory.”
Rose didn’t even make it into the final group.
Fowler dropped only one shot on a muggy day with a short burst of showers, closing with a par from the back bunker on the 18th. He will play with Woods in the final round for the first time since the Memorial, where Woods closed with a 67 to win and Fowler had an 84.
Fowler was only three shots behind going into the final round of the Honda Classic at the start of the Florida swing and closed with a 74. He also had a bad Sunday at Doral (78), though he was never in serious contention.
Without knowing where his 67 would leave him at Bay Hill, he sounded determined to finish stronger.
“It was disappointing to play the way I did those two Sundays, but I felt really good with where I was at, putting myself in position to go win a golf tournament or have a good finish and kind of taking myself out of it,” Fowler said. “So it was a little bit of a kick in the butt to go out there and finish off tournaments. So I’m looking forward to tomorrow and seeing if we can go do that.”
Nine players were separated by three shots going into the final round, though the dynamic takes on a different vibe at Bay Hill. Woods can tie a PGA Tour record for most victories at one tournament. Sam Snead won the Greater Greensboro Open eight times.
“I have a chance to win tomorrow,” Woods said.
More than just another trophy, and another greeting from the King, are on the line Sunday.
Woods is one round away from returning to No. 1 in the world, a place he hasn’t been since the last week in October in 2010. A year ago, Woods was No. 18 in the world and without a PGA Tour win for 2 1/2 years. Now he is going for his third tour victory this year, and sixth dating to Bay Hill last season.