- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods needs the charge of a lifetime to catch the four horsemen of Augusta.

The golf world has waited a decade for some young blood to push Woods in the majors. A cavalry of young shotsmiths and one aging quarterhorse arrived yesterday, responding to Tiger’s surging 68 with some clutch back-nine heroics to bury the 13-time major champion in a massive hole entering today’s finale of the 72nd Masters.

The pole position for this afternoon’s Sunday sprint belongs to Trevor Immelman, who rebounded from a pair of point-blank misses over the opening six holes, emotionally weathered Woods’ midday salvo and carved out a third consecutive round in the 60s (68-68-69).

The 28-year-old South African used a back-nine 33 to race to 11 under, rapping in a short birdie putt at the last to nudge two strokes clear of playing partner Brandt Snedeker (9-under 207). Journeyman Steve Flesch (208) stands one more back. And 30-year-old Brit Paul Casey (209) provides the final buffer between the quartet and the lurking Woods (211).

“I’ve never had the lead in a major going into a final round,” said Immelman, whose previous best finish in a major was fifth in the 2005 Masters. “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.”

If yesterday’s effort is any indication, there’s no failure in Immelman’s future. When Woods posted his mid-afternoon 68 on the 7,445-yard, par-72 layout to reach 5 under, the four players now standing between him and a fifth green jacket were clustered at 8 under and scattered around various points of Amen Corner (Nos. 11-13).

Normally, Woods’ presence on a leader board has a disconcerting magnetic effect on those above him, pulling even seasoned veterans back toward golf’s gargantuan. When those ahead of him have hardly ever contended for a major title, much less claimed one, that gravitas tends to be even more devastating.

But a strange break from that tradition took place when Immelman and Snedeker suddenly felt Woods tickling their heels. After 12 shaky holes of level-par play, Immelman erupted, playing the final six holes in 3 under (birdies at Nos. 13, 14 and 18) to pull away instead of retreating.

And Snedeker authored an even less predictable response, recovering from a seemingly disastrous three-bogey debacle around Amen Corner with three closing birdies of his own (Nos. 14, 15 and 18) to regain every stroke he had tossed away in Woods’ psychological wake.

“I wasn’t shaken as much as I was a little ticked off,” said Snedeker, who earned last season’s PGA Tour Rookie of the Year award after posting six top-10 finishes, his first victory (Wyndham Championship) and finishing 17th on the money list. “I knew I was playing good. I felt like I was swinging good at it and had not hit too many bad shots to be honest. And I knew I was rolling it great. I knew if I just gave myself a few more chances coming in, I would be fine. And sure enough, I made three birdies down the stretch.”

Though Immelman and Snedeker have little major experience, neither is a standard front-runner. Immelman experienced a huge dose of perspective when he had a tumor removed from his back four months ago that involved a biopsy scare. After potentially staring cancer in the face, perhaps facing Tiger in a game of golf doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

At Vanderbilt, Snedeker won the 2003 U.S. Public Links Championship, which comes with a Masters invitation … and temporary practice privileges at Augusta National.

“When you get that invitation to come and play in the Masters, right around Christmas, you can come down and play as much as you want,” Snedeker said. “They almost changed that rule because of me. I wore it out … I bet I played here 60 times.”

Snedeker finished 41st in the 2004 Masters as an amateur, finally made it back this season for the first time as a pro and has been leaning on his combination of course knowledge and toughness. And like Immelman, Snedeker doesn’t seem the least bit intimidated by today’s high-stakes finale.

“I’m not nervous about it at all,” Snedeker said. “I’m very excited about it. This is why everyone in the field practices and plays is for a chance like tomorrow … I know Tiger is going to go out there and shoot 4 or 5 under tomorrow as well as he played today. That just lets you know what you’ve got to do.”

Perhaps Immelman and Snedeker can take solace in the unusual fact that Woods has not rallied from behind after 54 holes in any of his 13 major victories. An epic Woodsian charge would seem to be coming at some point. But with four players in front of him and Immelman six strokes clear, Woods knows he’ll likely have to play one of the best rounds of his career to catch the front-running pack.

“I’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow,” Woods said. “If we get the weather we’re supposed to get tomorrow, you’ve just got to hang in there and hang around and anything can happen.”

INSIDE THE MASTERS

LEADER BOARD

UP — GRAND SLAM

Tiger (5 under) charges onto the board with a Saturday 68

DOWN — LEFTY

Mickelson could have used a bib during yesterday’s puke job

DOWN — EXPERIENCE

No major titles for foursome at the top of the board

UP — WEATHER

Combination of early rain and afternoon breeze adds to drama

UP — NIKE

Immelman, Woods, Casey and Cink all shill for the Swoosh

TRIVIA

Which of Augusta National’s par-5s has never yielded a double-eagle in the Masters?

QUOTABLE

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

— Four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods after surging into contention with a 68

BY THE NUMBERS

0 — Major titles won by Tiger Woods when trailing after 54 holes. All 13 of Tiger’s Slam titles have come when he was either ahead or tied for the lead entering the final round.

3 over — Performance around Amen Corner yesterday for Brandt Snedeker. The 2007 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year arrived at No. 11 at 9 under and leading the tournament only to slump off of the 13th at 6 under after a water-logged second shot at the par-5 defined a spiral of three straight bogeys.

TRIVIA ANSWER

The 575-yard second hole is the only par-5 at Augusta National that has not yielded a double-eagle. Each of the other three has produced one. Bruce Devlin made a two at the eighth hole in 1967. Jeff Maggert recorded a deuce at the 13th in 1994. And Gene Sarazen authored the “shot heard ‘round the world” when he holed a 4-wood from 225 yards during the final round en route to the 1935 Masters title.

Barker Davis


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