Tiger charges into Bay Hill lead

Putts are falling, fists are pumping, rivals melting.

Golf is going back to the future.

Somehow, a Saturday at Bay Hill that began rather gloomily for Tiger Woods ended with such familiarity.

Woods has the lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a tournament he’s won seven times.

He made five big par saves in his first 10 holes of the third round, but with Justin Rose 4-under through his opening five holes, Woods fell six shots off the Englishman’s lead.

He was losing touch, but then Woods did what he does: picked up his pace and, coincidentally or not, Rose started to wobble — literally, as he’d later admit to feeling his legs go out from under him in the closing stretch.

Rose played the back nine in three strokes over par.

Carried by an exquisite eagle — his third of the tournament — on the par-5 16th, Woods didn’t wait to be invited to the top of the leaderboard.

After an impressive 6-under 66, Woods now takes a two-shot lead into Sunday’s final round, looking to win this event for a record eighth time and, in the process, reclaim the world No. 1 ranking that he lost in October 2010.

“It was sort of one of my goals to get back to that position after being out of the top 50 there for a while,” he said.

There’s little doubt that Woods — who has closed out an astonishing 40 of 42 third-round leads in his PGA Tour career — isn’t the same player who was struggling through his reconstruction from 2010 until this week last year, when he won a full-field PGA Tour event for the first time since his infidelity scandal.

He’s played all week like he used to: with the certainty that he’d be in the thick of the race on Sunday afternoon.

And his rivals have noticed the glide in his stride.

“He’s definitely more comfortable,” said Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, who played alongside Woods on Saturday for the first time since they met at the 2012 Match Play.

“I remember at the Match Play, his routine was longer. You could see he wasn’t confident with what he was doing.”

On Saturday, the Spaniard said, “he just got up to the ball and hit it.”

Not just hit it, but hit it very, very well. Woods’ irons were strong, and his putter — as it was in the victory at Doral two weeks ago — was deadly.

“I hit a lot of good putts,” he said with a smile.

Woods doesn’t betray too much about what goes on inside, especially on the eve of a Sunday when he has the lead. But he conceded that his confidence has grown.

“I’m much more comfortable, but also I think that I’m feeling pretty good, physically,” he said.

Confidence, he said, comes from understanding “how to fix my game. It’s taken me awhile.”

On Sunday, Woods will play in the final round with Rickie Fowler, who shot a second successive 67. Fowler was also his playing partner in the final round of last year’s Memorial. It didn’t end so well for the tyro. Woods shot 67 and won the tournament, Fowler’s quick hooks found the water hazards early and often on his way to an 84.

But Fowler is feisty and isn’t ready to concede anything.

“After Memorial, I’m looking for a little redemption,” Fowler said. “I’m feeling good about the pairing, about my game. He’s definitely the guy to beat, but I’ll be right there to see what’s going on.

“With him having leads on courses he loves like this and Torrey Pines and Doral, and I’m sure there are others, he’s basically never lost with a lead in the final round. So I’m going in there with the attitude that I have nothing to lose, and we’ll see what happens from there.”

If, as they say, past is prologue, we know what happens.

We know how this story ends, or how it used to end.