Tiger Woods’ 18th-hole dramatics used to be pretty much a given, especially at Bay Hill.
Woods’ latest birdie — and fist pump — on the final hole at the Arnold Palmer Invitational Saturday likely was a day early and not enough for the 42-year-old to complete his latest comeback with his first win in five years.
Either way, Woods’ 10-foot putt gave record crowds something to cheer and kept him within striking distance entering Sunday’s final round.
“That was a nice one to get,” Woods said of his birdie. “Maybe a low one [Sunday] will give me a chance to kind of steal one from behind.”
Woods might have to stage the equivalent of a Brinks truck stick-up. A 3-under 69 Saturday featuring several missed opportunities left Woods 7-under par and five shots back.
A balanced and big-name leaderboard, headlined by Henrik Stenson, stands between Woods and his ninth win at Bay Hill.
Stenson feels anything but secure following a 71 during the third round.
He enters Sunday a shot ahead of promising 24-year-old Bryson DeChambeau, two ahead of Rory McIlroy and three ahead of Ryan Moore and world No. 5 Justin Rose, who carded a 67 playing with Woods.
Fan favorite Rickie Fowler had a chance to play in the final pairing, but closed with a bogey and a double-bogey to sit four shots back with four players, including 2017 API runner-up Charley Hoffman.
McIlroy, a four-time major champion, is the biggest name near the top. The 28-year-old could be finding his game just in time to make a run in three weeks at the Masters and complete a career Grand Slam.
McIlroy’s 5-under 67 Saturday was his lowest round in five PGA Tour events this season and featured just 25 putts — long his bugaboo. A year after battling injuries, McIlroy has fallen to 13th in the world rankings and gone 26 tournaments without a win.
“I started the day just outside the top-10 and wanted to at least give myself a chance going into tomorrow, so it was a great day out there,” he said. “I can’t really ask for much more.”
Meanwhile, Stenson wished he had gotten more out of his round.
The 41-year-old Swede and longtime Lake Nona resident felt he had a chance to distance himself from the field, but failed to capitalize on his opportunities coming down the stretch.
“I think that I didn’t really miss a shot the last six holes, the only frustrating part not really getting the score with me on that fine play coming in,” Stenson said. “I definitely could have wrapped up a two or three-shot lead for tomorrow, which would have been a nice cushion.”
Stenson followed a birdie on the par-5 16th hole with a bogey on the challenging, 209-yard par-3 17th, when his teeshot was caught in the wind and found a front bunker.
Stenson, though, remains in solid position to join 2016 winner Jason Day as just the second wire-to-wire winner at the API since Fred Couples in 2016. Stenson opened the tournament with an 8-under 64 and has the ball-striking ability and explosiveness to capitalize on the increasingly fast, firm conditions.
Stenson also has some unfinished business at Bay Hill. He had chances to win in both 2015 and 2016, but miscues late Sunday cost him both times.
“I’ve been up in the mix a few times and we’re there again,” he said “Of course I would like to see a different outcome tomorrow. But it’s going to take some good golfing and, yeah, I’m back here trying to give it a go for sure.”
But all eyes will be on a player most likely with little chance to close the deal.
Woods’ eight wins at Bay Hill all came while playing in the final group. He will tee off at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, with five pairings behind him.
Tiger might not have enough in the tank to stage a come-from-behind win, but his comeback clearly is way ahead of schedule.
It also is drawing crowds rarely seen at anything but golf’s biggest events, setting the stage for an exciting, energized Sunday at Bay Hill.
“People are more into this comeback this time around, I think,” Rose said. “So it’s fun to play out there, for sure.”
(c)2018 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)/Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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