ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Looking like his old imposing self, Tiger Woods surged into the third round lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Saturday, setting his sights on winning an eighth Bay Hill title and retaking the number one ranking.
Four back of overnight leaders Justin Rose and Bill Haas when the day began, Woods walked off the course to thundering cheers and in full command after returning a brilliant six-under 66 for a two-shot lead over compatriots John Huh (71) and Rickie Fowler (67) as well as Briton Rose (72).
Woods, who had a disastrous end to his second round on Friday with three consecutive bogeys, stumbled out of the gate on Saturday when he found the fairway bunker with his opening drive but his putter was working early and he dropped an 11-foot putt to save par.
To no one’s great surprise, he soon discovered his comfort zone on one of his all-time favourite layouts, mixing an eagle and five birdies with a single bogey.
Seven-times, including last year, Woods has triumphed at “Arnie’s Place” and one more victory on Sunday would match Sam Snead’s PGA Tour record for most wins in a single event.
It would also see him reclaim top spot in the world rankings from Rory McIlroy.
“Generally our schedules are such that once we figure out what golf courses we like, we tend to play them,” Woods told reporters.
“That’s been the case with my scheduling and look at few events over the course of my career I’ve played well on and this is one of them.”
”Just because I’ve won here doesn’t ensure that I‘m going to win the tournament.
“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.”
Certainly few will be betting against the 14-times major winner, who by all accounts is back in top form.
A birdie at 15 brought out a familiar fist pump from Woods which was followed by an eagle at 16 and an even bigger celebration.
When a long birdie putt on 17 just kissed the cup, an excited Woods danced across the green, twirling his putter like a baton.
Yes indeed, life is good again for Woods, who announced earlier this week that he was dating World Cup ski sensation Lindsey Vonn.
With all parts of his game coming together and his personal life back on track, Woods looks unstoppable heading into next month’s Masters.
Following a tumultuous fall from grace, the stars have aligned for the 37-year-old as he rebuilds his life and image after the scandalous and very public breakup of his marriage.
“I enjoy it, that’s why we play is to be in this position,” said Woods. “It’s why I’ve spent all that time practising and training is to be in this position.”
While Woods surged world number five Rose and Haas wilted.
Rose got off to a blistering start with two birdies and an eagle on his opening four holes to build a four shot cushion but suddenly lost his way and carded five bogeys against one more birdie for an even par 72.
”Definitely a good start today, great front nine and first four holes got me flying,“ said Rose. ”The energy disappeared big time.
“I don’t know if it was fatigue or didn’t eat right or something but I was struggling.”
Haas was also quick out of the gate with two birdies but was undone by a pair of double-bogeys on his way to a one-over 73 which left himthree off the pace alongside Spaniard Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (68), Dane Thorbjorn Olesen (66) and Americans Jimmy Walker (70) and Ken Duke (70). (Editing by Gene Cherry)