The best players in the world will battle it out for the 66th Masters Tournament during what promises to be one of the great final days in Major Championship golf. Six of the top seven players in the world occupy the top six positions at the end of the third round at Augusta National with Retief Goosen and Tiger Woods leading the way on 11 under par 205.
The leaderboard reads as a ‘Who’s Who’ of international golf with eight European Tour Members in the top ten going into the final round. Goosen, the reigning US Open Champion and 2001 Volvo Order of Merit winner, and Woods, the defending Champion and World Number One, lie just two strokes ahead of the chasing pack.
Goosen, ranked Number Four in the World, won the Johnnie Walker Classic on The European Tour International Schedule in February in record fashion and arrived at Augusta National brimming with confidence after winning the BellSouth Classic on the US PGA Tour last week. A bogey on the final hole cost him the outright lead but a 69, his third round in the 60s, was good enough to place him in the final group tomorrow.
Woods shot a marvellously controlled 66, six under par, after birdieing the lasy to join Goosen at the top of the leaderboard on 205, 11 under par in his bid for a third Green Jacket and seventh Major Championship title.
Vijay Singh, the 2002 Masters Champion and winner of the Shell Houston Open a fortnight ago, shared the lead with Goosen for much of the third round until hitting his second shot on the 15th through the green and into the water over the back. The World Number Seven, a winner of 11 titles on The European Tour International Schedule, lies just two shots adrift as he chases his second Green Jacket in the space of three years.
World Number Three Ernie Els, twice a US Open Champion and the current leader of the Volvo Order of Merit having captured the Heineken Classic and Dubai Desert Classic this season, lies in the group just four shots behind the leaders.
Alongside Els, Sergio Garcia, the World Number Five, is poised to mount a challenge for his first Major Championship title after a round of 70 left him on seven under par while World Number Two Phil Mickelson, who is also seeking his first Major Championship, is also on seven under par after a third round of 68.
Add to that the name of Spain’s José Maria Olazábal, currently second on both the Volvo Order of Merit and the US PGA Tour Money List, who shot a third round 71 to lie on six under par, and you could not wish for a better looking leaderboard for the first Major Championship of the year. Olazábal will be seeking his third Green Jacket following his victories in 1994 and 1999.
The calibre of golfers continues further down with Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, the reigning Volvo Masters Andalucia Champion who finished second to Goosen in the 2001 Volvo Order of Merit, on five under par alongside Thomas Björn of Denmark, who shot a round of 70. The top ten is completed Argentina’s Angel Cabrera, the eighth European Tour Member in the top ten, who shot a 73 to lie on four under par.
Goosen made a magical start to his third round with three straight birdies to move ahead of Singh, the halfway leader. He dropped his first shot of the day on the eighth when he three putted but saved his par on the ninth after recovering from the left bunker for an outward half of 34. At that stage he was tied for the lead with Singh but the South African broke the deadlock with a birdie on the 12th, holing out from 25 feet. Another birdie followed on the 13th, when he laid up with his second but pitched to ten feet and duly converted the putt.
Three putts on the 14th cost him a shot but he immediately hit back with a birdie on the 15th to pull clear once again. Over the next two holes he was faced with testing par putts but holed out magnificently, as he has done all week, to save his par and remain in pole position with one hole to play. But after a wayward drive on the last, into the trees on the right, he could only chip out to the fairway and, after pitching to 25 feet, two putted to conclude his round of 69.
Woods, meanwhile was quietly stalking Goosen. An outward half of 34 kept the leaders well within range and when he birdied the 10th and 11th holes he started to make his move. A birdie chance on the par five 13th passed him by but he made no mistake on the 500 yard 15th, chipping from the left side of the green to five feet and holing his birdie putt to move to ten under par. Further pressure was applied with a marvellous birdie on the final hole, his approach nestling 12 feet from the hole and the putt never faltering as it hit the centre of the hole to conclude a round of 66, six under par.
Singh and Goosen were locked together until the Fijian overshot the 15th green and the ball shot into the water over the back. After dropping under penalty, Singh finished with a bogey six and dropped another shot on the 17th but remains very much in the hunt after a round of 72 left him just three shots of the lead on nine under par.
With Els, Garcia, Mickelson, Olazábal, Harrington and Björn all within striking distance of the leaders, the final round of the 66th Masters Tournament is perfectly poised to be a classic.