Sunday's question: Can Tiger remember how to close?

March 24, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

ORLANDO, Fla. -- When the scream went up Saturday near the 15th tee, Tiger Woods was well into his downswing, milliseconds away from hitting his tee shot. It was too late for him to stop his swing, but not too early for him to know that something was going awry with this critical shot in the late stages of the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard.

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Woods, who was coming off a bogey at the 14th hole, watched in disbelief as the shot at the 15th veered left-to-left, flying over fences and out of bounds into a back yard of a house adjacent to the Bay Hill Club and Lodge. The three-stroke lead he had carved out over Graeme McDowell was about to evaporate.

And Woods would have the opportunity to go any which way -- stumble, fall or take another step toward breaking the longest victory drought of his professional career.

As the blogosphere and Twitter universe erupted with outraged posts and tweets about what many perceived as someone's intent to derail Woods -- who didn't know until much later that the scream occurred when an 18-year-old boy fainted nearby -- Woods was pulling himself together.

He teed another ball, smashed his 3-wood stinger down the left side of the 429-yard, par-4 hole, hit a 7-iron to within 14 feet but missed the putt for what would have been a remarkable bogey. He made double bogey, just his second of the season, regrouped and birdied the 16th hole coming in to shoot 71.

That allowed him to keep the thin but important one-stroke lead over McDowell, who birdied the 17th en route to a 71 of his own.

How difficult was it to compose himself, bounce back, retain the lead and move toward his first PGA TOUR victory since the BMW Championship in 2009?

"Actually, it was very simple," he said. "Because the only bad shot I hit was there at 14. The 15th was just one of those fluke things, and if I take that away, I make par on a hole -- or, rather, I had a birdie putt in my head -- and I'm at 13-under.

"So, it was a solid day. Just happened to have one little fluke thing where a kid passed out."

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So, this is the Woods mindset as he goes about trying to win again. It's noteworthy because there was a difference in his bearing as he approached the 16th tee to take on the final par-5 hole. Everything that had gone before had no meaning. He wasn't worried about the 4-stroke lead shrinking to 3 at the 14th when his 7-iron buried in the left bunker at the par-three hole; He didn't care that the lead was winnowed to 1-stroke after the double-bogey at 15 or that he briefly fell back into a tie for the lead when McDowell birdied the 17th.

Because he took care of the final par-5, birdieing it with a two-putt to put him at 10 under for the week on the par 5s. Most important to Woods?

"I still have the lead," he said.

And he moved closer to closure on 30 months without a win, getting back on track to chase Jack Nicklaus, whose major championship record of 18 was beginning to look safer with each week that passed without Woods back into the winner's circle.

What he did during the round might not have been artistic, but it was resolute. Ernie Els, who made a move Saturday with a 67 that vaulted him into a tie for third at 8 under, 3 strokes back, knows that Woods stands between him and his own goal of getting into the Masters field.

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"Obviously the leader right now, he's won here six times, so he knows how to run and hide so to speak on this golf course," said Els, who would get into the field with a solo second place finish here. I'm going to have to shoot something like today again tomorrow.

"You know, 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."

Woods' record with the third-round lead is daunting, 48-4. But Woods has lost three of the last five times he has held or shared the 54-hole lead.

So, which will it be on Sunday? The Woods whose presence on the leaderboard with lead in hand was virtually unbeatable on Sunday? Or the more vulnerable Woods of recent times, who surrendered leads at the 2009 PGA Championship, the 2010 Chevron World Challenge and the 2012 Abu Dhabi Championship?

"I'm looking forward to getting out there and seeing what happens," Woods said, smiling.