ORLANDO, Fla. — Tiger Woods is one round away from returning to No. 1 in the world.
With key par saves early in his round and an eagle for the third straight day at Bay Hill, Woods seized control Saturday with a 6-under 66 to race by Justin Rose and build a two-shot lead going into the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
After being tied with Woods following the first round, Davis High graduate Nick Watney was off his game on Friday, shooting a 4-over 76. The former Blue Devil played better on Saturday, rebounding from an early triple bogey to shoot even par.
Watney was tied for 55th place at 1-over.
Woods, meanwhile, was at 11-under 205, two shots ahead of Rickie Fowler (67), John Huh (71) and Rose, who at one point was six shots ahead of Woods. Rose had a 39 on the back nine and wound up with a 72.
Woods hasn’t been No. 1 in the world ranking since the last week of October 2010. That can change Sunday with a victory on a Bay Hill course where he already has won seven times, and from a position where he hardly ever loses.
Woods is 41-2 on the PGA Tour when he has the outright lead going into the final round.
“Just because I’ve won here doesn’t ensure that I’m going to win the tournament,” Woods said. “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. Over the course of my career, I’ve done a pretty decent job of that.”
Rose had a three-shot lead on the back nine until he crumbled, making three bogeys over the last six holes.
He didn’t even make it into the final group.
Fowler dropped only one shot on a muggy day with a short burst of showers, closing with a par from the back bunker on the 18th. The last time Fowler and Woods were paired together in the final round was at the Memorial, where Woods closed with a 67 to win and Fowler had an 84.
Fowler was only three shots behind going into the final round of the Honda Classic at the start of the Florida swing and closed with a 74. He also had a bad Sunday at Doral (78), though he was never in serious contention. Without knowing where his 67 would leave him at Bay Hill, he sounded determined to finish stronger.
“It was disappointing to play the way I did those two Sundays, but I felt really good with where I was at, putting myself in position to go win a golf tournament or have a good finish and kind of taking myself out of it,” Fowler said. “So it was a little bit of a kick in the butt to go out there and finish off tournaments. So I’m looking forward to (Sunday) and seeing if we can go do that.”
Nine players were separated by three shots going into the final round, though the dynamic takes on a different vibe at Bay Hill. Woods can tie a PGA Tour record for most victories at one tournament. Sam Snead won the Greater Greensboro Open eight times.
Thorbjorn Olesen of Denmark had a 66 and was in the group at 8-under 208, along with Jimmy Walker (70), Bill Haas (73), Ken Duke (70) and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano of Spain, who played with Woods and had a 68.