AUGUSTA, Ga. -- On a sun-splashed day that began with Tiger Woods losing two shots to par before he even got to the first tee, 32-year-old American Brandt Snedeker quietly went about the business of fulfilling his quest to win his first major championship.
After a bogey-free round of 3-under-par 69 Saturday, he was tied for the 54-hole lead in the 77th Masters with Argentina’s Angel Cabrera, just ahead of a pack of eager pursuers with green-jacketed glory also very much on their minds.
Woods already has four precious coats in his South Florida closet, but he will have to make up a four-shot deficit to add a fifth on Sunday. When he came to the course Saturday morning, he was assessed a two-shot penalty for a rules violation — an improper drop at the 15th hole on Friday — that left him five shots off the lead at the start of play.
But the No. 1 player in the world fought back with an obvious vengeance, starting his day with a birdie at the first hole and making three consecutive splendid saves of par down the stretch to post a round of 2-under 70 that left him at 3-under 213 after 54 holes. Woods, who missed a 2 1/2-foot birdie putt at the eighth hole, will be aiming for his 15th major title and first since 2008 on Sunday, but he also has never had to come from behind to win any of his first 14 majors.
Woods said he never contemplated disqualifying himself for his Friday violation, adding that “under the rules of golf I can play. I was able to go out there and compete and play. … You know [the day] started off obviously different, but I’m right there in the ball game. I’m four back with a great shot to win this championship.”
He is certainly not alone in that regard, with 11 players now within five shots of the lead.
Snedeker and Cabrera (69), the 2009 Masters winner currently ranked 269th in the world, were tied at the top at 7-under 209. That was a shot clear of Australian Adam Scott (69) at 6-under 210 and on his own mission to win his first major and become his country’s first Masters champion. Two other Aussies, first round co-leader Marc Leishman (72) and 36-hole leader Jason Day (73), also are in position to fulfill that heady goal, tied for fourth place at 5-under.
American Matt Kuchar pushed into contention with a 69 that left him alone in sixth place at 4-under 212, though Fred Couples, 53, only a shot off the 36-hole lead, fell out of the mix with a disastrous triple bogey at the 17th that left him at even-par 216 after a third-round 77.
Playing in the final group with Couples, Day was atop the leaderboard for most of this afternoon. He was tied for the lead after his first 16 holes, but sloppy three-putt bogeys on his final two holes cost him dearly. Still, he has been in major championship contention before, finishing as runner-up here to Charl Schwartzel by two shots in 2011 after shooting 68 in the final round.
Snedeker also knows about Sunday pressure at Augusta National. In 2008, playing his first Masters as a professional, the Vanderbilt graduate was in second place after three rounds, only to soar to a Sunday 77 and a tie for third, his best finish in five appearances. Earlier this year, he was among the hottest players in the world, with four top 10s in his first five events, including a victory in Pebble Beach, before a rib injury sidelined him for several weeks.
There was no sign of any lingering effects Saturday as Snedeker made 12 consecutive pars before a run of three birdies in his next four holes pushed him into the lead for the first time. His last birdie came at the 170-yard 16th, when his tee shot came to rest three feet from the flag. He made that putt and finished with back-to-back pars.
“I feel like my golf swing is getting back to the way it was,” he said. “My short game is in really good stead, and I’m excited. I’m mentally fresh and you know, this is what I’ve worked my whole life for. I had no clue what I was doing in 2008. … I have a completely clear focus of what I need to do Sunday, a clear set of goals. … I am completely 100 percent sure that I’m ready to handle no matter what happens [Sunday]. I’m going to be disappointed if I don’t win, period.”
Cabrera was moving in the wrong direction with back-to-back bogeys at 13 and 14, but he birdied two of his last three holes, including a tough 14-foot putt at the 18th that earned him a share of the lead. He also has had a decent track record at Augusta National, with five top-10 finishes, including his playoff victory over Kenny Perry four years ago.
“In 2009, I was nervous, anxious,” Cabrera said. “But now I’m very comfortable. I know what I’ve got to do [Sunday]. I don’t think it’s a big advantage that I’ve won before. It’s more about execution and patience.”