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Arnold Palmer Invitational: Tiger leaps into the lead

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 23:  Tiger Woods plays a shot on the 7th hole during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational

ORLANDO, FL – MARCH 23: Tiger Woods plays a shot on the 7th hole during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational

It was an outcome that was waiting to happen since the first tee was pegged in at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Thursday. After lurking in the shadows for what seemed an interminable two days, Tiger Woods leapt with the ferocity of a hungry feline to take his appointed place at the head of the pack. Beginning four strokes off the pace, Woods took advantage of an unimpressive showing by the leaders to leapfrog to the front with a mighty 6 under 66 that left him two clear going into the final round. The great golfer seems set to erase the pain of the past two years and return to the top of the rankings for the first time since October 2010. Rickie Fowler made amends for a first round 73 with a burst of birdies that helped him to 67 and a share of second with Justin Rose and John Huh.

The anticipation surrounding the resurgence of Woods has been gathering steam ever since he emerged victorious at the Farmers Insurance Open and the World Golf Championships earlier this year. Late struggles in the first two rounds cost Woods, but on Saturday he made some critical par saves, including one from 12 feet on the first hole to open the day with purpose. Tiger underlined his resurgence, using the 6-iron to telling effect – driving to within 12 feet before sinking the birdie on the 15th, followed by an even more impressive eagle on the 16th from 20 feet out.

Woods racked up five birdies – three on the front nine and two on the trip to the clubhouse – and an eagle on the 16th that consolidated his position. The only blemish on the day came at the 13th where he took a bogey. Woods has converted on 51 of the 55 times he either held the lead outright or had a share of it, so it will take a brave gambler to bet against his chances on Sunday.

A second straight 67 catapulted Rickie Fowler into the final pairing with Woods for Sunday. Fowler will have stark memories from his pairing with Woods – the last time that happened at the Memorial Tournament in 2012, Woods raced to victory with a 67 while Fowler imploded with an ugly 84. It is no wonder then that he is seeking to restore some pride on Sunday. “After Memorial, I’m looking for a little redemption,” said Fowler as he signed off on Saturday with a lone bogey on 9 sandwiched between three birdies on either side of the trip. “I’m feeling good about the pairing, about my game,” he added. “I’m going in there with the attitude that I have nothing to lose and we’ll see what happens from there.”

Justin Rose promised the moon when he gained four shots on the first four holes including an eagle on  the par-5 fourth, but after looking solid all week, suddenly fell into a downward spiral that saw him slip away from a position of great strength. Four bogeys on the back nine (10th, 13th, 14th & 17th) ruined the day for the Brit, who had to settle for an even par 72. “Yeah, obviously a great start, really,” recounted Rose. “It was quite funny, actually, the energy disappeared big time. My legs went on me almost out there. I don’t know if it was fatigue or didn’t eat right or something, but I was struggling. My legs were going, and I made some loose swings coming down the stretch and really trying to hang on to that.”

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 23:  John Huh reacts to a shot on the 17th hole during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational

ORLANDO, FL – MARCH 23: John Huh reacts to a shot on the 17th hole during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational

John Huh continued his impressive week, but he will be slightly worried by the arithmetic progression of his scorecard. After 67 and 69 in the first two rounds, Huh had to be content with a 71 on Saturday after bogeys at 5 and 13 compromised his card. Overnight leader alongside Rose, Bill Haas surrendered valuable acres leading into Sunday, despite starting with birdies at the first two holes. Double bogeys at 5 and 10 and another bogey at the 13 left him scrambling to salvage a 73 that undid the gains from that round of 66 on Friday. Haas slipped to 8 under into a group of five men that includes Gonzalo Fdez-Castano, Olesen, Jimmy Walker and Ken Duke.

A surprise mover on Saturday was Matt Every – who had scores of 72 and 75 and appeared in terminal decline – with a stunning 66 that included five birdies and an eagle on the 16th to set himself up for an unlikely spot in the top 20. Every is at 3 under 213 going into the final round. Thorbjorn Olesen and Keegan Bradley also made 66 to climb to 8 and 7 under respectively and inside the top ten going into Sunday. Vijay Singh was among the biggest losers on the day, after a 75 carted him down to two under and out of contention for the honours. Sergio Garcia also lost ground on the day with a 73 that put him alongside Singh at 2 under.

Come Sunday, all attention will be on Woods – who could ascend to the top the FedEx Cup rankings by defending his title at Bay Hill. All signs point to a victory for the embattled legend – he is a seven-time winner at Orlando and has only lost twice (41-2) when holding the outright lead after Saturday. “It was one of my goals to get back to that position after being out of the top 50 there for a while, being hurt and having all my points come off when I couldn’t play,” said the Florida resident. “That was not a fun stretch. But I had to get healthy in order to compete, and so far I’ve had five wins on Tour. So I’m heading in the right direction.” A victory could tie Woods with Sam Snead for most victories at a tournament and give him his 99th career title. For many followers of golf, Sunday could not come faster.

Scores

-11: T Woods (US)

-9: R Fowler (US), J Huh (US), J Rose (Eng)

-8: T Olesen (Den), G Fernandez-Castano (Sp), J Walker (US), K Duke (US), B Haas (US)

-7: M Wilson (US), K Bradley (US)

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