- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

AUGUSTA, Ga. | Welcome to golf's version of the Final Four.

The 73rd Masters has crystallized into a four-man, 18-hole sprint featuring Kenny Perry (11-under, 205), Angel Cabrera (205), Chad Campbell (207) and Jim Furyk (208). Each member of the quartet atop the leader board at Augusta National boasts major championship experience as well as multiple professional victories.

Among the quartet, Cabrera and Furyk can claim past major triumphs. Cabrera blasted his way to the 2007 U.S. Open title at Oakmont. Furyk managed his U.S. Open conquest four years earlier at Olympia Fields.

Both Campbell and Perry have had near misses. Campbell's came at Oak Hill in the 2003 PGA Championship. Perry's brush with immortality came at Valhalla in the 1996 PGA.

It's becoming a virtual certainty that there will be a new member of the green-jacket fraternity Sunday night; the past champions highest on the leader board are a 4-under cluster of players including Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

The sentimental favorite could be Perry, the likable 48-year-old renaissance man attempting to become the oldest major champion in history.

“This may be my last time to have this kind of opportunity, so I'm going to enjoy it for sure,” said Perry, who has 13 victories on tour but surprisingly few major chances. “I know I can play. I've been there. I've done it. But I haven't been in this kind of situation that often.

Perry has never totally lived down his sudden-death loss to Mark Brooks at Valhalla, where he controversially agreed to join CBS in the broadcast booth before the playoff instead of staying loose on the range.

“I wish I could redo that one. That stings. That one is still with me today. I've carried it a long time,” Perry said. “But now I'm in a great spot. I've got something I can achieve that will move me up another notch on the totem pole on the PGA Tour. … I'm never thinking I'm a superstar, but most people who talk about me say I'm a nice guy and I'm a good player, and that's about all you hear. Maybe, you know, I can change that attitude [Sunday].”

Though Cabrera is in the best position to spoil Perry's major breakthrough, perhaps the dogged Furyk is the ultimate threat to him.

“The more often you go through these situations, the more comfortable you become in them,” Furyk said. “I'm still close enough that, if I play a good round, I can put some stress on the leaders and have a good chance to win.”

Throwing a star-power scare into the players above them on the board was the likely goal of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson entering Saturday. But neither of the world's top two players broke 70 on a benign day around the 7,435-yard, par-72 layout, leaving both at 4 under (212) and paired together for the finale.

Barring both a historic charge and a meltdown by the veterans atop the leader board, Woods won't slip into his fifth green jacket Sunday.

The 14-time major champion snap-hooked his opening drive into the trees en route to a double bogey at No. 1. Woods rallied with three late birdies (Nos. 13, 15 and 17) to post a 70 and reach 4 under for the tournament, but he needed a score in the mid-60s to make things interesting.

Woods is buried behind nine players on the leader board and trailing Perry and Cabrera by seven strokes. If that margin seems less than insurmountable for him, remember that he has never rallied from even one stroke back to win a major.

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