- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008

AUGUSTA, Ga.

You know it, I know it and Tiger Woods certainly knows it — though he likely doesn’t dwell on such matters, being a positive thinker and all. About the only thing missing from his impeccable resume is a rousing, come-from-behind, gather-the-kiddies-around-the-TV-set finish to win a major.

Arnold Palmer had his 1960 U.S. Open, Jack Nicklaus his ‘86 Masters. Where’s Tiger’s Charge For The Ages? I mean, isn’t he the golfer who has — and does — everything?

He played his way into contention yesterday at Augusta National, firing a bogey-resistant 68 to climb to 5 under. But he still finds himself six shots out of the lead going into Round 4, no closer than he was going into Round 3.

Ahead of him are many of the same faces — Trevor Immelman (11 under), Brandt Snedeker (9 under), Steve Flesch (8 under), Paul Casey (7 under). Granted, it’s no Murderer’s Row, but Woods has much ground to make up. Right now he’s looking like Julie Christie at the Academy Awards: good for his age, but there comes a time when youth must be served.

The question is: Which youth? The 28-year-old Immelman, the 27-year-old Snedeker or the 30-year-old Casey? Or will Lefty Flesch, the geezer in the group at 40, have his Mike Weir Moment this afternoon? They all have considerably more margin for error than Woods, who basically can’t make a mistake the rest of the way.

Heck, he hardly made one yesterday. Indeed, only his tee shot on 18, which drifted into the pine trees on the right, displeased him. For the second straight day, though, he made a miraculous recovery to save par, threading his approach through the branches and safely onto the green.

“I shot the highest score I could have shot,” he said afterward. “I hit so many good putts that just skirted the hole.”

An early afternoon downpour softened the surroundings, the putting surfaces in particular, creating lots of birdie and even eagle opportunities. In fact, Augusta National, so strangely quiet a year ago after the latest round of draconian course changes, felt — and sounded — like Augusta National again.

Yes, the roars were back. And none was louder than when Tiger hit his second shot to a foot at 17, nearly holing it. That put him at 5 under and, temporarily, just three strokes out of the lead.

But then Immelman, after some early shakiness, got going again, reeling off three birdies in the last six holes. Snedeker, meanwhile, righted himself after a near-disastrous bogey-bogey-bogey stretch around Amen Corner and finished with three late birds himself. That made the distance Woods has to travel today quite a bit longer — maybe too long, unless the front-runners pull a collective Greg Norman.

There was no hint of that yesterday. Snedeker might have crumpled when he ran into trouble at 11, 12 and 13 — as the youngest of the youth brigade, he was the definitely most likely candidate — but he didn’t. The kid kept cool … somehow.

“It’s a long tournament,” he said. “Maybe if it [had been] Sunday, it would have been a little different reaction.”

Woods can only hope for that kind of reaction from the leaders, that kind of tightening of the thorax, in Round 4. He can also hope Immelman isn’t as fortunate as he was yesterday, when the South African’s shot to the par-5 15th nearly wound up in a watery grave. Luckily for him, his ball stopped on the slope in front of the green, about 12 feet from its rendezvous with H2O. Thus did a bogey — or worse — become a par.

The media mob reminded Immelman of a similar break Fred Couples got in 1992, the year he won the Masters — not that he needed any reminding. Still, he said, “there’s a massive difference [between the two]. This was the 15th hole in the third round. That was the 12th hole in the final round.”

Later, Immelman said something else, something that should be music to Woods’ ears: “I’ve never had the lead in a major in the final round.” Neither, of course, has Snedeker … or Flesch or Casey. This is unexplored territory for them— unlike Tiger, who has had television cameras trained on him almost since birth.

“All I can do is play as hard as I can,” Immelman added.

But not too hard — not if the wind, as expected, is up. If that’s the case, if it’s blowing “just enough to make it interesting,” as Woods put it, “you have to stay as patient as possible.”

Patience doesn’t often result in a low score, though, and Tiger would seem to need one today — another 68 at least, maybe a 67. He has been in this position often in recent Masters — two strokes back heading into the final round two years ago, one stroke back last year — and been unable to close the deal.

And now he’s six down with 18 holes to play. Now he needs to be Arnie in 1960 or Jack in ‘86. One of these times, you figure, it’s going to happen for him, but is this that time?

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