|Tiger Woods, who has endured a ton of recent changes, hasn't won since Sept. 13, 2009. (Getty Images)|
ORLANDO, Fla. -- So it represents just another notch on his 5-iron, huh?
As most of the wired portion of the planet is aware, which effectively factors out only the polar ice caps, Tiger Woods is in the midst of a frigid PGA Tour victory skein that has stretched well into its third year.
For the Eskimos out there, the former world No. 1 lost his wife, most of his public reputation, his swing coach, his caddie and completely overhauled his golf swing. Again.
|Arnold Palmer Invitational|
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So when he was asked at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Saturday night about the significance of a victory at this point, which would stem the public's piling-on parade, everybody stood back, held their breath and wondered which direction he'd head.
Alas, the Zen moment was merely a win moment.
"As far as what it would mean," Woods said, unblinkingly and with a complete lack of emotion, "it would be No. 72. Not a bad number, either."
There are plenty of bad ones he must dodge to get there.
For the first time since Sept. 12, 2009, Woods laid his head on the pillow Saturday night and slept with the 54-hole lead at a PGA Tour event, which also happens to date to the last tournament he won in the States.
In a season filled with riveting finishes, careening crashes and Sunday shootouts, this could be the white-knuckle Maalox ride to top them all. Reclamation beckons for the world's biggest sports figure, and Woods almost casually said he's ready to answer the doorbell.
"I'm looking forward to getting out there and seeing what happens," he said, as calmly as he would order a pizza.
Talk about a diminuendo before the crashing cresendo. Woods might be acting like nothing's changed, but for anybody who walked past a supermarket checkout stand and eyed the trash tabloids over the past 30 months knows that's just plain whistling in the graveyard. He seemed determined not to paint himself into a corner.
Same as it never was? Until Woods proves otherwise, perhaps so. After shooting a 1-under 71 on Saturday, Woods will carry a one-stroke lead into the final round, hoping that two decades of positivity at Arnie's place will prove the panacea his career so badly needs.
Woods, who is seeking a career-best seventh professional title at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, which would represent the most he has amassed at any single tour event, will need to hold off former U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell, two-time Bay Hill champion Ernie Els and a total of seven players within five strokes at a point where his ability to close out victories has never been more in doubt.
Woods, 36, was stoically talking the talk, and now he must walk the walk. And that's not a crack about his aching Achilles' tendons.
Of all his accomplishments, Woods' career data as a lock-down closer makes guys like Mariano Riviera, the Eck and Goose Gossage look like they threw underhand. He's nailed down a win in 48 of 52 tries with at least a share of the 54-hole lead in PGA Tour play, but like everything else in his life over the past three years, it now requires a bit more scrutiny.
We're broadening the tournament spectrum here to make a point, but the last five times he's held at least a piece of the third-round lead in global events offering world-ranking points, he's only won twice. Those three losses include the Chevron event he hosted 15 months ago outside Los Angeles, where he blew a four-stroke overnight lead and got upstaged on the 18th green by McDowell, who rammed in birdie putts on the 72nd and first playoff holes to wrest the title from Woods on a home venue of sorts.
Wanna guess who's playing alongside Tee-Dub on Sunday? The unflappable Usterman, whose steely stare at Woods after canning the winning putt at the Chevron was ultimately used as part of a PGA Tour promotional television spot.
"You know, it's not really the intimidation factor of him; it's more the kind of circus that goes with him, the media, the cameras, just everything," McDowell said. "You multiply it by ten, 15, 20, from playing with anyone else.
"The crowds are pretty big, fun here in Orlando and there will be a few beers on board and it will be pretty raucous out there, I'm sure."
If it's anything like Saturday, it's going to have everything but midget circus clowns and calliope music. Fans were lined up five or six deep at several spots alone the ropes early in the third round, and Woods was cruising along fairly effortlessly, taking a four-stroke lead over McDowell as he played the back nine.
Woods seemed headed toward an inexorable seventh crowning from the King when he stood on the 15th tee, a 3-wood hand, and drew it back. Nearby, a loud noise was heard at a concession stand located perhaps 25 yards away, and Woods jacked the ball so far left, it landed in a resident's backyard, miles out of bounds. The club flew out of his hand on his follow-through and he was forced to reload.
That particular launch pad serves as a double tee box and is located at the most congested point on the course, where two neighborhood streets converge. Woods was leaking lava like Vesuvius and complained vehemently to caddie Joe La Cava afterward.
"All they've got a do is not yell in the middle of my backswing," he said.
For tender eyes, we left a few adjectives out of the previous sentence. The final result was Woods' second double-bogey of the season, and by the time he and McDowell finished, the lead had been pared by three shots to one.
When he finished, Woods was informed that the snack-bar debacle was the result of a woman screaming after a young fan had fainted in the high afternoon heat, a version confirmed by an Orange County Sheriffs Deputy assigned to Woods' group. The episode was not believed to be serious.
Given the delicacy of his professional situation, Woods might not want to read the back story of this season, which has included plenty of his brethren toppling in the high heat on Sunday. In 12 PGA Tour events contested this year, the 54-hole leader has managed to win on Sunday ... four times. Of course, this isn't Woods' first ride on the rodeo bull.
"Well, they have not won a lot of tournaments," he said of the others who faltered this season. "These are not the guys who have won 20 plus events. They are looking for their first event or they have only won one, or maybe even two."
Back in the day, Woods usually had won that many titles before he headed off to the Masters each spring. McDowell, who said a few months ago that Woods' trademark red shirt on Sunday was close to meaningless to everybody on tour except Tiger himself, isn't expected to back down.
"The atmosphere is going to be fantastic out there tomorrow due to him being in the mix, and there's no doubt that he's done a lot for the game of golf," McDowell said. "There's going to be a nice amount of expectation on him tomorrow trying to complete the comeback.
"I know he says he's not on a comeback, that he's been around for a long time, but you know, he's still got to win. Still got to go win tomorrow like the rest of us have to."
Indeed, Woods has often maintained that he never really left for long, if at all, but a 30-month drought on the U.S. tour is an awfully big elephant parked in his psychological living room. In that span, more than 30 different players have won for the first time on the PGA Tour.
Woods didn't directly answer a question about whether playing at Bay Hill, where he has won seven tournaments in all over his career arc, including a big USGA event as a kid, provides a bit more emotional leverage as he seeks to end the skid. He's 5 for 5 with the 54-hole lead at Palmer's pad.
"Obviously, the leader right now, he's won here six times [as a pro]," Els said, "so he knows how to run and hide so to speak on this golf course."
Interesting choice of words.
With everybody watching Sunday, as ever, Woods can run, but he can't hide.