Tiger in the mix as Stenson leads Bay Hill

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The future of Tiger Woods is filled with optimism because of the past. "I was just trying to lag it down there, just make my par and get outta here and it had a crash at the hole, which I'm not complaining about, and it went in".

And if he had not snagged win No. 9 at Bay Hill, fine. She birdied the par-4 ninth for a front-nine 31, made another birdie on the par-5 11th and capped the bogey-free round with an 18-foot birdie putt on the par-4 18th.

Six months after Woods wasn't sure if he would be able to compete again at a high level, he is the betting favorite at Bay Hill.

Fowler was tied for the lead briefly until a long three-putt on the par-3 14th and a messy finish.

He looks closer than ever to winning. I've played well here through the years and just haven't been back in a couple of years. Instead of pitching out to the fairway, he hit a shot over the trees and the water that set up a two-putt birdie, and he hit sand wedge into the 18th for a 12-foot birdie putt and a 69. In some respects, so is Woods. "That was a nice one", the former world No 1 said of the birdie. He is coming off a runner-up finish at Innisbrook last week and has won eight times at Bay Hill.

"I'm just happy to be back playing again, competing, grinding out there and trying to work my way up the board, work my way around the golf course", the victor of 79 PGA Tour titles and 14 majors said.

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Bay Hill will be a different test from Innisbrook, mainly because it requires a little more length off the tee and with unseasonably cool air this week, the ball isn't likely to travel as far.

Woods is everywhere this week. He won in 2003 by 11 shots while coping with dry heaves from food poisoning. Throw in Charley Hoffman and Rickie Fowler at 8 under and Woods knows there is a formidable group ahead of him. Day sees it the other way, saying Woods thrives with so much attention. Sometimes, I wish he would have listened to me a little more, but he's very stubborn and he likes to go his own way. "They're all out there for him".

Woods shot a 3-under 69 to get to 7 under in the tournament, certainly within striking distance back in his prime.

And McIlroy now feels he can clutch silverware which could prove so important to his challenge for the Masters in under three weeks' time.

"Worked on my swing a little bit, found a feeling, found something I could go with for this week and maybe beyond", McIlroy said.

His last majors win was in 2008, beating Rocco Mediate in a US Open playoff despite a bad leg that would eventually undergo three surgeries.