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Saturday, March 23, 2013
Tiger poised to resume his top spot

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- As it relates to Tiger Woods, the No. 1 ranking in the world typically was taken for granted.

He won so much, played so consistently well, that his spot atop the Official World Golf Ranking was an afterthought. After he won two major championships in both 2005 and 2006, the idea that he would be caught was preposterous.

That changed, of course, late in the 2010 season when after not winning for more than a year, he fell from No. 1 after a five-year-plus reign. A year later, he had dropped to 58th, mostly due to inactivity caused by injuries that kept him out for four months in the summer of 2011.

Now he's on the verge of going to No. 1 for the first time in 2 ½ years.

And the fact that he must win the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday at the Bay Hill Club makes it all the better.

Woods has always said that victories were the main thing, and that the rest would take care of itself.

Well, from where he sits now, anything short of victory will be unacceptable for him. It only would be fitting that he get to No. 1 with a win.

"It sort of was one of my goals to get back to that position after being out of the top 50 there for a while, being hurt, and having all my points come off where I couldn't play,'' Woods said Saturday after his 6-under-par 66 gave him a two-shot lead over Rickie Fowler, John Huh and Justin Rose. "That was not a fun stretch, but I had to get healthy in order to compete, and so far I've had five wins on our tour in the last couple years. So I'm heading in the right direction.''

Woods is in the position from which he almost never fails. In his PGA Tour career, he has won 40 out of 42 tournaments when taking the outright lead into the final round. His only losses came to Ed Fiori at the Quad Cities tournament in 1996 -- the very first time Woods had such an advantage -- and in 2009 to Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship.

Even when holding at least a share of the lead, his record is very impressive: 51 of 55.

And given a windy forecast for Sunday, Woods' chances increase. He has a proven ability to assess the situation, see what his pursuers are doing, and adjust. Defensive golf, making numerous pars, will be to his advantage. The fact that Woods appears even more at ease with his game is another advantage.

"He's definitely more comfortable,'' said Spain's Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, who played with Woods in the third roud and shot 68 to trail by three. "I remember at the Match Play (where they had a first-round match in 2012), his routine was longer. You could see he wasn't confident with what he was doing. He just got up to the ball and hit it [Saturday].''

Woods didn't always hit well, however, especially off the tee. No matter the club, he missed too many fairways, hitting just 7 of 14.

There was one stretch where he missed five in a row. He hit just 11 greens in regulation, but also made five putts longer than 8 feet. He leads the field in strokes gained putting, perhaps a reason why he showed emotion several times when holing putts.

"I haven't putted this well and I haven't been in this kind of position,'' Woods said. "Today was a good day. It was tough out there. The wind was starting to move the ball on the greens and you had to hit flush putts and I was hitting them flush.

"I understand how to play this golf course. Obviously I've hit some bad shots off the tees, and that needs to be cleaned up. But my good ones have been a lot better than they had been. That's really encouraging. I'm headed in the right direction.''

A win Sunday would be significant in many ways. It would be his eighth at this tournament, matching Sam Snead's record for most victories in a single tournament (Snead won the Greater Greensboro Open eight times). It would be his 77th PGA Tour title, and third this year. It would represent his most victories heading into the Masters since 2008, the year he won the U.S. Open -- his last major title.

And, perhaps more important to him than he has ever let on, he would go to No. 1 in the world ranking, giving him that distinction for a total of 624 weeks in his career.