Two of yesteryear’s “Big Four” head into the final round at Bay Hill looking for the same thing, albeit for different reasons. One is hoping to end a streak, while the other is hoping to continue one.
Ernie Els hasn’t missed a Masters tournament since joining the PGA Tour back in 1994, as the then 25-year-old earned a top-10 finish there in his very first trip to Augusta 18 years ago. That must’ve been weighing on his mind Saturday at Bay Hill, as the 42-yr-old fired a 5-under 67, one of only four players who would share the low-round honors on the day. Els got off to a quick start on Saturday, picking up birdies on holes 4, 6, 8 and 9, making the turn at 4-under 32. He would stumble on the par4 15th, carding his only bogey on the day, but bounced back with a birdie on the par5 16th to get back to 7-under par for the event. On the final hole of the day, Els fired his approach from 143 yards right at the flag that was perched just a few paces from the water’s edge, rewarding him with a 14-footer for a closing birdie. At 8-under par and three shots back of Tiger Woods, Els admitted that while he’s certainly not out of it, he could use a little help tomorrow to come away the victor. “When you shoot a score like that in the third round, with the wind up a little bit and knowing that I needed to have a good one feels very special. So it gives me an outside chance for tomorrow,” he said. “You know, I don’t want to talk too badly about Tiger, but I hope he makes a couple of bogeys and I have a bit of a chance tomorrow (chuckling). I’m really pleased with that round.” While Ernie would obviously love nothing more than to prevail on Sunday and earn his way into the Masters, he quickly put to rest any notion that he deserves a special favor in the form of a special invite from the Masters Tournament Committee. “No. Listen, you know, it’s an invitational. So you can be invited, but we all know we have to qualify for it, and that’s that. I’m certainly not going to be lobbying for it, and that’s that,” Els replied. “I haven’t played well the last 18 months or so, and I am in the position where I am. That’s fine. As I say, it’s the invitation, it’s their tournament, whatever they want.”
It’s been close to 2-and-a-half years since Tiger Woods won his last official PGA Tour event, 909 days to be exact. While he won’t be preoccupied with the distraction of having to win on Sunday to get into the upcoming Masters, unlike Ernie Els, he will nevertheless be facing a different form of pressure. Woods has found himself in a position to win on two distinct occasions already this season, going back to January in the HSBC Championship in Abu Dhabi on the European Tour, and then again at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks later. But Woods has yet to show the long-lost ability to do something that he used to be able to accomplish with amazing regularity not all that long ago – close out a win on Sunday. On Saturday, Tiger got off to a difficult start in his third round after missing the green to the left on the par3 2nd, missing his 13-footer to save par and taking bogey. But as he’s done exceptionally well this week at Bay Hill, he made up ground on the par5′s. Tiger birdied both the par5 4th and par5 6th to go out in 1-under 35, which given the wind and firm conditions on Saturday was more than respectable.
Woods got his round to 2-under after draining a 23 footer for birdie on the par4 11th, and then moved to 3-under on the day after holing a 14-footer for birdie on the par4 13th. Heading into the par3 14th, he seemed poised to increase the gap between himself and the rest of the field and add to the cushion heading into Sunday. But not quite. He would miss badly on the par3 14th, finding his ball plugged in the green-side bunker some 80 feet from the hole. Just like that he was back to 12-under par for the event and his momentum was gone. The bogey carried over into the next hole, as Woods launched his hooking tee shot out-of-bounds left and ended up taking a double bogey, dropping back into a tie with Graeme McDowell for the lead at 10-under. But as quickly as the uncertainty came – it disappeared. From 190 yards in the right fairway bunker on the par5 16th, Woods carved a beautiful second shot over the trees and drew it back to within 23 feet of the pin for eagle. He would go on to 2-putt for birdie, once again assuming the outright lead at 11-under par. He would miss the green and find the bunker once again on the par3 17th, but played a solid bunker shot to within 3 feet to save his par, and narrowly missed his 37 footer at the last, taking par and a 1-under 71. Afterward, Woods was asked about the significance of having the lead in a tournament he’s typically expected to win, albeit with a different level of expectations this time around. “Well, I enjoy it. That means I’ve played well to get here. It’s not like I’m slashing it all over the place and happened to be at 11-under par,” he said. “If you’re in the lead, you’ve done some good things. That’s how I’ve always looked at it, and it’s a nice position to be in.” When reminded of the trend of 54-hole leads disappearing this season, Tiger made it a point to distinguish himself from those before him this year who’ve had problems closing on Sundays. “Well, they have not won a lot of tournaments. 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,” Woods said. “It’s a little bit different story when, in my generation, when you have Vijay and Phil who have won 20-plus events and they are in that position. It’s different when you’re looking for your first win. I think most of the guys here this year are looking for their first win; whether it was Kyle or it was Charlie at Pebble, they are guys looking for their first wins.”
Woods is 16 years removed from a time in his life when he too was looking for his first Tour win, and in a manner of speaking – once again finds himself looking for the first win in what many consider the 2nd chapter of his career. While a lot of critics are unconvinced that Woods will ever return to the level to win 4 more major championships to tie Nicklaus’ 18 major victories, a win on Sunday would earn him his 72nd Tour victory, putting him well within reach of at least one of Jack’s coveted records – all-time wins. Nicklaus is ranked 2nd with 73 Tour wins.
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The one player who could present the biggest hurdle for Tiger earning his 72nd Tour win on Sunday could be doing it for the 2nd time in his career, although this would be the first time officially speaking. Graeme McDowell spoiled Tiger’s comeback bid in 2010 by beating him in a playoff in his (unofficial) Chevron World Golf Challenge, and the two will be going head-to-head once again in Sunday’s final round at Bay Hill. McDowell fired the low-round of the tournament on Friday, a 9-under 63 that put him in the thick of things heading into the weekend. But the conditions on Saturday would put a premium on distance control and accuracy, as the winds made the layout much more firm and difficult to manage. Unlike the round prior, McDowell found himself playing much more conservatively and playing away from many of the difficult Saturday hole locations. While carding only one bogey in his 3rd round – he could only manage 2 birdies and a 1-under 71. But despite the slow scoring day, McDowell kept pace with Tiger and finds himself only a shot back heading into Sunday, with yet another opportunity to rain on Tiger’s comeback parade. As for going head-to-head with Woods in the final pairing, he’s familiar with the distractions that come with it. “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; you multiply it by ten, 15, 20, from playing with anyone else,” McDowell said. “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.” McDowell also noted that Tiger’s no longer immune to the pressure that he always seemed to put on everyone else in the field. “There’s a fair bit of expectation on Tiger. You know, he’s looking to complete the comeback I suppose tomorrow, because there’s no doubt that he’s playing great,” he said. “He’s got the ball under control, but he’s got to go out there and try to win tomorrow the same way I do and a lot of other players that have got the opportunity to win.”
Ian Poulter is tied with Els at 8-under par, and is certainly not out of the Sunday conversation. Poulter has putted beautifully at Bay Hill, yet to need more than 29 strokes in any of the first three rounds on the greens this week. His 4-under 68 on Saturday in the difficult conditions shouldn’t be overlooked heading into the final round, especially on a layout that has the potential to serve up some big numbers on the scorecard.
Charles Howell III and Johnson Wagner are tied at 7-under par, four shots back of the lead and tied for 5th heading into Sunday. Charlie Wi and Kevin Na are tied for 7th @ 6-under par.
For a full recap of Saturday’s action at the 2012 Bay Hill Invitational, click HERE.