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Saturday, March 24, 2012
For Tiger Woods, been here before

By Farrell Evans
ESPN.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- In 2009, Tiger Woods won his sixth Arnold Palmer Invitational. The victory was special because it came 10 months after he beat Rocco Mediate in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in an epic 19-hole playoff with a torn ACL and multiple stress fractures in his left leg. Bay Hill was also his third start of 2009 on a new left knee.

By the end of the year, Tiger would win five more times on the PGA Tour, solidifying his place as the best player in the world. Then his life changed forever on an eventful Thanksgiving night. No matter the truth of that night or the later revelations about his extramarital affairs, Woods hasn't won an official PGA Tour event since those calamitous times.

Now with a 1-shot lead heading into the final round after a 1-under 71 on Saturday, Tiger has another opportunity to use Bay Hill to energize his career. This is his first 54-hole lead in an official PGA Tour event since the 2009 BMW Championship, where he won by eight shots.

The 14-time major winner has won 48 of 52 PGA Tour events when holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead. When Woods owned the outright lead, he has won 37 of 39 events. Only Ed Fiori at the 1996 Quad Cities Open and Y.E. Yang at the 2009 PGA Championship beat Tiger when he has held the 54-hole lead.

What's at stake for Tiger on Sunday?

His legacy is secure as a one of the greatest players of all-time, but a win at Bay Hill could signal a new period of growth in his career and a check on those who seek to completely dethrone him as the barometer of great play on the world scene.

During Tiger's time away from the game in 2009, there were many players who tried to fill his void. Over the last year, Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy have emerged as real contenders to the spotlight controlled for more than a decade by Tiger. The fear factor is gone.

While Tiger still carries himself like a king, upright and stoic until he curses after a bad shot, to his competitors that's just his way, an aloofness borne of his past record but not an indication of what he's done lately.

"I wasn't playing against Tiger Woods when he had that aura," McIlroy told Golf.com last year. "I was watching on TV! I remember getting nervous when I first met him. I was 15.

"There was a presence about him. ... But Tiger is not playing as well as he was even a couple of years ago, never mind going back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when he was at his best. I'm not sure we are going to see him dominate again the way he did. He never seemed like he would make a mistake."

A win on Sunday won't launch Tiger back into No.1 in the world or frighten McIlroy or Donald, who are not in the field this week. But it will make them take notice that Tiger is back on the scene. That aura that seemingly places him in a bubble as he walks the fairways could rediscover some of its luminous.

Tiger wasn't perfect on Saturday. But then he's never been perfect. It just seemed that way because over the years he made every clutch putt that masked some of his imperfections.

Wins are important. Tiger was overjoyed after winning the unofficial Chevron Challenge in December. A win is a win, he said after beating 17 other players at the event that he hosts.

But Tiger knows the significance of a win in a full-field event on the PGA Tour, where he has won 71 times.

As he added victories in large chunks through the years, he probably took many of them for granted. He was supposed to win. Now they don't seem certain or come with the ease of the motion of one of his patented fist pumps. A win on Sunday will be hard-earned.

On Saturday, he had his chances to pull away from the field. At one point on the back nine, he had a 4-shot lead, but he gave three shots back with a bogey at 14 and a double-bogey at 15 after he hit his tee shot out of bounds when a woman tending to an ill fan screamed in the middle of his downswing.

But after his round Tiger was in no mood to talk about what could have been.

"If you're in the lead, you've done some good things," he said. "That's how I've always looked at it, and it's a nice position to be in."

Matters are in his hands. He's been here before, but not in this way. When he last won on the PGA Tour at the BMW in September 2009, he was still married with the veneer of his squeaky clean reputation still intact. His last official win anywhere in the world came at the 2009 Australian Masters a few weeks before that fateful Thanksgiving night.

His swing coach then -- Hank Haney -- has now revealed some of their most intimate conversations in a tell-all book that will hit bookstores on Tuesday. Now Woods has a new swing doctor in Sean Foley, a 38-year-old whiz that he lavishes praise on in much the same manner that he did with Haney a few years ago.

It will be hard for us to forget how good Tiger was from 1996 to 2009, but perhaps with a win on Sunday, we can start a new chapter in his career as a winner.

Just win baby, as the late Al Davis would say. Just win. Tiger knows this message well because it's all he's ever really wanted to do since he was 5 years old.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.