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Tiger survives 'flinch,' leads at Bay Hill

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ORLANDO, Fla. – “A kid fainted, a lady yelled, I flinched.”

If that sounds like the dramatic beginnings of a low-budget Hollywood thriller you’re not too far off. Tiger Woods’ less-than-embellished assessment of what happened in a split second on Bay Hill’s 15th tee is historically accurate and, more to the point, metaphorically apropos as the final stop on the Florida Swing moves into its final lap.

With a three-stroke lead over Graeme McDowell, Woods, who had bogeyed the 14th hole, began his backswing just a teen-aged boy passed out near a concession stand behind the 15th tee. A woman yelled and Woods pulled his tee shot left into a yard adjacent the fairway.

Woods signed for a double bogey-6 and briefly gave up a share of the lead to McDowell a hole later.

“I tried to stop (the swing), but I was past the point of no return and flipped it out of bounds,” said Woods, who finished with a 71 for an 11-under 205 total. “It was a solid day. Just happened to have one little fluke thing where a kid passed out.”

Officially the Tour calls what happened next “bounce back,” a statistic that measures the number of times a player follows an over-par hole with an under-par hole. But Woods’ birdie at the par-5 17th lifted him one shot clear of the Ulsterman and salvaged what was quickly becoming a runaway.

Instead of a four-stroke (or more) cushion, Woods will begin Sunday’s turn a shot ahead. In political terms, it’s a statistical dead heat.

Sure, McDowell ran down Woods when he was four down through 54 holes at the 2010 Chevron World Challenge. But that was a “one-dimensional” player who had been on Sean Foley’s watch for less than four months at a limited-field silly event.

“(In 2010) I had just started working with Foley so I was very new to the mold,” Woods said. “I only had one pattern at the time. Now I’ve got much more variety in my game.”

The new Woods is showing a surprising amount of savvy in recent weeks. Although he wasn’t as sharp on Saturday as he was on Friday, when he hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation and had a birdie, or eagle, putt on every hole, he played the type of round that could have made Sunday a formality if not for a 15th-hole “fluke.”

The new repertoire includes an updated version of the stinger shot, which he hit on numerous occasions Saturday, and a surprisingly conservative game plan.

“I wasn’t aggressive hardly any,” Woods said. “It was just too firm. I just relied on my lag putting.”

Well putting, and historical context that would suggest that regardless of his prolonged victory slide Woods is still the easy bet on Sunday.

He is 48-for-52 with a 54-hole lead and on the half dozen occasions he has won at Bay Hill just once (2009) he began the final round without at least a share of the lead.

There are other numbers, however, that suggest, as foregone conclusions go, Woods may be something short of a lock. In January he began the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship tied for the lead but faded into a tie for third and having GMac in the final pairing will only serve to remind him of his 2010 miss at Sherwood Country Club.

“There’s a familiarity of Tiger Woods being on the leaderboard every week, but that’s what he did when he was at his best, up until a few years ago,” McDowell said. “It’s been a weird couple of years without him kind of competing . . . I know he says he’s not on a comeback, he’s been around for a long time, but he’s still got to win.”

A victory on Sunday would be Woods’ first official Tour title since the 2009 BMW Championship, a run of 30 months filled with questions and doubt and more than one missed opportunity.

Late Saturday Woods was asked what a long-awaited “W” would mean, “It would mean No. 72 (Tour title). Not a bad number, either.”

This time he’s hoping he doesn’t flinch.