Can the new Tiger Woods close like the old one? We'll find out Sunday at Bay Hill

Sunday March 25th, 2012
Tiger Woods hasn't won on the PGA Tour in more than two years.
Carlos M Saavedra/SI

All of those wins, all of those closing statistics and all of those 14 major championships won't matter on Sunday.

They tell you everything about the player that Tiger Woods was, but nothing about the player he is now.

That's why Sunday's final round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill will be one of the biggest rounds in Tiger's storied career. This may be the day when we get the answer to the question, Is Tiger Woods back?

The answer for the first three rounds at Bay Hill was decidedly, Yes. And that question is all the more exciting because we're on the doorstep of the year's first major championship, the Masters, barely more than a week away. Woods shot 69 in the opening round, a sizzling 65 in the second round and temporarily put some room between himself and the rest of the field Saturday, opening a four-shot edge at one point. He shot 71, one under par, and led former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell by one stroke at the end of the day.

"I played better than 71, certainly," Woods said after the round. "I played well today. I hit one bad shot at 14 and had a three-putt. I'm looking forward to tomorrow. It's going to be fun."

It's been more than two years since Tiger last won a real PGA Tour event. Now he's got the lead going into Sunday at one of his favorite courses. There is a lot at stake.

"He loves Bay Hill, winning here six times," analyst Johnny Miller said during NBC's telecast Saturday. "There's a lot of pressure on him. If he were to happen to stumble tomorrow and somebody shoots a low round and beats him, it would set him back. He needs a win. He needs a win to get that confidence going into Augusta."

A win by Woods will intensify the spotlight at Augusta, which already looks like one of the more exciting majors in recent memory due to recent events -- Phil Mickelson revived his game and looked to be in prime form with his win at Pebble Beach; Rory McIlroy briefly attained the No. 1 ranking when he outdueled Tiger to win the Honda Classic; Luke Donald reclaimed that No. 1 spot with a playoff victory at Innisbrook; Ernie Els appears to be coming out of a two-year putting funk; and we've seen assorted impressive performances by Hunter Mahan, Kyle Stanley and Justin Rose, among others.

They're all on a collision course, it seems, for a showdown at the Masters. Add Tiger Woods to the mix, and you've got a recipe for hysteria.

Woods looked fully in control during the third round until midway through the back nine. He snuck a birdie putt in the right side at 13 to give himself a three-shot lead. Then Woods, apparently distracted by a woman's shout from a nearby concession stand, hit a drop-kicked, hooking 3-wood shot way left at 15, into a Bay Hill resident's yard and out of bounds. He re-teed and put his next shot just into the left rough. From there, he played a superb iron shot pin-high left and narrowly missed a putt that would have salvaged bogey. He made a double bogey, cutting his lead to one stroke, but still looked like he was in control.

Woods said later that he was told the woman shouted when her son fainted.

When NBC's blimp showed an overhead shot of where Tiger's errant shot ended up, there was a brief silence. "Speechless," said analyst Peter Jacobsen.

Shots like that are why Tiger's round Sunday will be so big. Just when he's looked like the Tiger of old, something happens to cast doubt on his game. "It's a process" has been Tiger's stock non-answer for the last year about the status of his game. But look back at his progress, and he's been exactly right. He has been progressing, and he has been looking especially good since last year's Presidents Cup in Australia.

"My bad days aren't as bad as they used to be," Woods said after Bay Hill's second round.

After Australia, Woods regained a little confidence by winning the unofficial tournament he hosts every December in suburban Los Angeles, the Chevron World Challenge. It was only an 18-man field, but Woods did finish birdie-birdie to win. It was a start.

In a European tour event in Abu Dhabi, Woods had the 54-hole lead but had a lackluster final round and slipped back to third behind Robert Rock. Woods played well at the Australian Open until a poor third round. At Pebble Beach, he put together three good rounds but looked baffled on the greens on Sunday and was no match for a charging Mickelson. Finally, Woods answered a lot of questions at the Honda Classic when he closed with a 62 and nearly stole the title from McIlroy. Then came Doral, when he was last seen driving away from the course after withdrawing mid-round on Sunday with an Achilles injury.

This week, Tiger has looked healthy, and his ballstriking has looked familiar. He hit 19 consecutive greens in regulation at one point. On Saturday, he used an old favorite off the tee, a low stinger iron shot, to find fairways on the back nine, and it was very effective.

At the par-5 sixth hole, he narrowly missed a 96-foot eagle putt and settled for a tap-in birdie.

He birdied the par-5 16th hole from a fairway bunker, then found a deep greenside bunker at the par-3 17th and played a beautiful explosion shot to three feet and saved par. At 18, Woods settled for par after his short second putt rattled around a bit before finding the bottom of the cup.

Woods's stats are almost humorous. He has won 33 of 41 times when leading after 36 holes. He has won 47 of 51 times on the PGA Tour when holding the 54-hole lead, but he lost the last two times, at Abu Dhabi and the 2010 Chevron World Challenge. At Bay Hill, where he has won six times, he has been close to unbeatable.

But this isn't the Same Old Tiger. This is the Brand New Tiger, and we don't have a read on him yet. Is he back, and if so, is he all the way back? Can McDowell or maybe Ernie Els or anyone else catch him? Inquiring minds want to know.

"We're in for a good ride tomorrow," Miller noted on-air.

No argument there, Johnny. Buckle up, people. This should be fun.

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