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Saturday, March 23, 2013
All signs pointing to Tiger triumph(s)

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- About two hours before Tiger Woods teed off Saturday, his caddie, the laid-back Joe LaCava, stood in the contestant parking lot at the Bay Hill Club. LaCava is so cool that I'm not sure an EMT could find his pulse.

LaCava, who has been caddying for decades -- and for Woods about the last 18 months -- -has seen it all. But he knows the difference between Struggling Tiger and Dialed-In Tiger. And right now, Woods is dialed in like a telethon.

"We're in position, that's all you can ask,'' said LaCava.

That was late morning. By late afternoon, Woods not only was in contention, he was in the lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a tournament that he wins as often as Arnie drinks iced tea mixed with lemonade.

Woods began Saturday's round four shots out of the lead. He ended it two strokes ahead of second-place Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose and John Huh.

There are no sure things in sports (see: 2012 USA Ryder Cup team … Georgetown versus Florida Gulf Coast … Shabazz Muhammad versus his birth certificate), but Woods is the closest thing to one. When he leads or is tied for the lead after 54 holes in a Tour event, Woods is a coffee-for-closers guy. He's 51-4. He's 40-2 with the outright lead.

That's Mariano Rivera Sandman stuff -- good morning, good afternoon, good night. Getting Woods to cough up a Sunday lead is like trying to pull a chew toy from a Doberman's mouth.

"I enjoy it," said Woods. "That's why we play, is to be in this position."

Whenever I get an email or tweet asking why I always write or talk about Woods, I remind people of two things:

• Occasionally I write and talk about guys named Phil and Rory.

• It's Tiger Flippin' Woods.

If you watched him Saturday, you saw a Woods that is healthy, happy and hyped to win this tournament for an eighth time. They ought to rename the place House of Eldrick.

If he wins, he'll broad jump over current world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who was busy hanging out with his girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki. Nothing wrong with some R&R for Rors.

But Woods is in work mode. He remembers November 2011, when he tumbled all the way to 58th in those world rankings. The last time Woods was ranked that low was infancy.

Now he's a round away from returning to a place that he ruled for 623 weeks. And don't kid yourself -- it means something to him.

"It sort of was one of my goals to get back to that position after being out of the top 50 for a while, being hurt and having all my [rankings] points come off when I couldn't play,'' Woods said. "That was not a fun stretch.''

This is. Woods has won twice this year. He won three times in 2012.

"I just understand how to fix my game,'' he said. "It's taken me a while.''

Woods hasn't won a major since 2008, hasn't won a Masters since 2005. But all the indicators point toward an end to both of those streaks.

Look at his golf body language. It's more confident, more self-assured. Woods says so. LaCava says so. His swing coach Sean Foley says so. In fact, anyone who owns a golf glove says so.

He bogeyed the last three holes of his Friday round … and steamed like a clam for the entire night. He watched NCAA tournament games in an effort to forget how he yakked away those three strokes.

"I watched just about every [game] I could until the very end,'' he said.

Saturday was different. Instead of going bogey-bogey-bogey, he went eagle-par-par to finish the round. Instead of talking through clenched teeth, as he did Friday, he had the smiley face working.

Woods won't sleep much Saturday night -- not because he's nervous about that final round, but because he operates on less snooze time than the rest of us. Plus, he's been in this position about 10,000 times.

"More than anything, I'm curious to see if we get any rain and what the conditions are going to be [Sunday] and I'll play it from there,'' he said.

Does that sound like a guy scared of winning his eighth Arnold Palmer Invitational and his 77th career tournament? Does that sound like someone nervous about becoming No. 1 again, about becoming the no-brainer Masters choice?

Maybe Fowler, Huh or Rose will leave here with the win. Maybe someone else comes out of nowhere (Keegan Bradley?) to overtake Woods. But I doubt it.

This feels like Woods' tournament and who knows, perhaps Woods' year.