Immelman leads, but a fifth green jacket is within reach for Woods

Immelman leads, but a fifth green jacket is within reach for Woods

"You want to win the Masters, period. Doesn't really matter how you do it as long as you do it," Woods said.
Al Tielemans/SI

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Upon further review, Dewey still didn’t defeat Truman. The most infamous headline in newspaper history was wrong.

If the hometown Augusta Chronicle ends up having a Dewey Defeats Truman moment, it’ll be because of Saturday’s third round at the Masters. It was the day that Tiger Woods finally made a move, and a day when most of the front-runners stopped moving forward.

A story on the Chronicle’s Web site Friday wrote off Tiger with the following lead: “So much for Tiger Woods’ grand slam. It’s done. Finished before it started.” The headline that accompanied the same story on the Savannah Morning News site blared, “Forget about Slam for Woods.”

Woods began the third round tied for 13th place, seven strokes back. He posted a 68 that easily could’ve been lower — a lot lower, in fact — and ended the day in fifth place, still six shots back but trailing a pack of players with little or no experience playing in the final-round glare of major championships.

Trevor Immelman, who began the day with the lead at eight under, birdied the 18th hole to finish off a 69, his third straight round in the 60s. He is 11 under, two shots ahead of Brandt Snedeker. Steve Flesch, a lefty, is three back; Paul Casey trails by four. Then there’s Tiger, coming off a remarkable ball-striking round, six strokes off the lead. Woods has never come from behind on Sunday to win a major, but does that mean he can’t? He has won 13 of the things, you know.

The rise of Woods was the story of the day. He played beautifully and had putts rolling over the edges of cups all day. It was an easy 68, if there is such a thing at Augusta National. This was the kind of golf we were expecting from Woods the first two days.

“This is the highest score I could have shot today,” Woods said. “I hit the ball so well and I hit so many good putts that just skirted the hole. But, hey, I put myself right back in the tournament.

“I only made one putt, really. The putt I made at 10. Otherwise I really didn’t make any putts today for birdie, because they were two putt birdies or tap ins.”

Once again, Woods probably accounted for the tournament’s loudest roar. He was creeping up the leaderboard when he got to the 17th hole, where he landed a sand wedge shot from 117 yards just behind the hole and made it spin back, just missing the edge of the cup. That was a tap-in birdie that moved him up to fifth and got his name on the scoreboards where the leaders could see it.

And once again, Woods had to pull off some heroics at the 18th to avoid messing up a flawless bogey-free round. On Friday, he drove it into the trees on the right, pitched out, played an amazing pitch shot that spun back down a slope and holed the putt to save par. On Saturday, he drove it into the trees on the right again, then hit a 7-iron from 180 yards through a gap in the pines and got it onto the front of the green. The pin was in back, and his long first putt came up seven feet short, but he curled in the crucial par putt.

Woods rarely admits to the difficulty of any shot, but he did describe his shot at 18 as a precision play. Asked how big the gap was, he answered, “Not very big. Probably four feet across, something like that. I had to either make a four or a six. Might as well go ahead and make four.”

Those two par saves may be considered historic shots if Woods should happen to make up enough ground Sunday to win. Six strokes is a considerable deficit. The wild cards in the final-round chase are the weather and the players in front of him. It’s expected to be cool, blustery and possibly very windy.

“If we get the weather we’re suppposed to get tomorrow, you’ve just got to hang in there and hang around,” said Woods. “Anything can happen, especially around that (Amen) corner … if the wind’s blowing all over the place.”

The chances for a Phil Mickelson vs. Tiger duel went south with Mickelson’s game. He birdied the second hole but bogeyed the sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th, and then, after birdies at 13 and 14, he doubled the par-3 16th. The pin was on the back right ledge, and Mickelson pulled his tee shot into the right bunker, the one place you can’t hit it with that pin location. His bunker shot ran down the slope to the far side of the green and he three-putted. He finished with a 75 and is at two under par, nine strokes back.

That leaves Woods pursuing an interesting group. There’s Immelman, a South African who is an outstanding iron player but whose putting has traditionally been suspect. Except this week, when he’s made just about everything. Immelman hadn’t made much happen all day until he spun a wedge to within a foot at the 13th and made birdie. He hit it close for two more birdies at 14 and 18, a cushion he may well need on Sunday.

Immelman, who won the 2006 Western Open and owns three European Tour victories, is in uncharted territory going into Sunday’s finale. “All I can ask for myself is to go out there and play as hard as I can and believe in myself and hope for the best,” he said.

If Tiger had the biggest roar, Immelman had the most agonizing shot of the day, though it ended well for him. He spun his approach shot at the par-5 15th hole off the front of the green and watched it trickle down the bank toward the pond. Remarkably, the ball stopped halfway down the slope. He carefully pitched it to five feet and holed the putt to save his par — and keep Woods another shot at bay.

“I was begging for it to stop,” Immelman admitted. “I knew there was a chance it was going to go in the water. I must say, I couldn’t quite believe it when it stayed up.”

Snedeker endured a roller-coaster round. He had taken the lead on the front nine, having gotten to nine under par, then made three bogeys in a row starting at the 11th hole. He recovered those strokes with birdies at 14, 15 and 18.

He is well aware of the most dangerous player behind him on the leaderboard. “I’m sure Tiger is going to be a factor,” Snedeker said. “His name is going to be on the board tomorrow. It’s going to be there on the back nine. As good as he’s playing right now, and he played a hell of a round today, that does not bode well for us if we think we’re going to shoot one or two under and win this tournament.”

As for Flesch and Casey, they’re almost opposites. Casey is a young gun who plays a power game. Flesch, 40, has never really contended in a major in his career. He’s not a long hitter, but he’s been able to keep up with the leaders because of a career week with the driver. He’s streaky, as is Casey, and when he’s on with his irons and his putter, he’s dangerous. That’s why he’s won four PGA Tour events, including the Colonial. Casey, 30, is an eight-time winner in Europe.

A major would be a crowning achievement for either of them. It would be unexpected for Flesch, possibly overdue for Casey.

“The major championships revolve around the world rankings and guys like Tiger and Phil,” Flesch said. “Let’s be honest, I’m not contending in a lot of majors. I haven’t even been to the Masters for three years. I don’t know how many times I’ll be back here. I’ve got nothing to lose and I’m having a ball.”

Only five players are within seven shots of the lead. The fifth is Stewart Cink, who shot 71 and is seven shots back.

“One of those top three guys is going to play good golf tomorrow,” Casey said. “Has to happen. It’s probably going to be Trevor, the way he’s been playing. He’s going to be the guy to catch.”

It’s going to be an interesting Sunday.