Former champions Vijay Singh and José Maria Olazábal will spearhead The European Tour challenge in the final round of the 67th Masters Tournament after an enthralling Saturday at Augusta National.
Singh, the winner in Georgia in 2000, continued to improve, his third round 70 his best score of the week to move to into a share of third place with David Toms on two under par 214, one shot behind second placed Mike Weir and only three shots adrift of leader Jeff Maggert.
Olazábal, who donned the Green Jacket in both 1994 and 1999, made a mockery of his recent erratic form with a controlled third round 71 to move to one under par and into a share of fifth place with Phil Mickelson and the ominous spectre of World Number One Tiger Woods who stormed back into contention with a third round 66.
Singh, who started the day at level par, made his move on the back nine of the Augusta course, birdies at the 12th, 15th and 16th seeing him move to three under par and within touching distance of the lead. But the Fijian’s forward momentum was halted at the last where he missed the green to the left and made bogey five.
“It was a long day out there and I am disappointed to finish with a bogey obviously, but apart from that I managed to keep it together,” he said. “I didn’t make too many putts of any significance out there today so hopefully I can put that right tomorrow.”
One shot behind, Olazábal put to one side the form which has seen him miss five out of eight cuts on the US PGA Tour in 2003 and fail to make the top 30 in the other three events, with a typically battling 71, his second consecutive one under par round.
After saving par from 15 feet at the 11th, the Spaniard went on the offensive and a superb approach to six feet set up a birdie three at the 14th before an excellent tee shot at the 16th set up another birdie from ten feet.
In all the times he had problems with his driving and approach play, the one thing Olazábal could always rely on was his short game and he showed why once again over the closing holes, missing the green at both the 17th and 18th but at both holes he produced exquisite pitch shot recoveries which left tap in pars on both occasions.
“The memories of my wins here are very special to me and it gives me a good feeling within myself whenever I come here,” he said.
“Of course I know the course well too and that helps if, say, I make a bad tee shot, I know where to go to try and find the best escape route. I believe that if I can play my game the way I am capable of, I can win again. I am not quite there yet, but we will see what happens tomorrow.”
Next best placed European Tour Members were the reigning Open Golf champion Ernie Els and the former Open Golf champion Paul Lawrie, who carded 72 and 73 respectively for a share of 11th place on one over par 217, both players showing resilience to keep their challenges intact during rocky spells on the back nine.
Els, whose chance for victory disappeared in last year’s final round when he made mistakes at the two par fives on the back nine, the 13th and 15th, found trouble at the holes once again and a trip into the water on each cost the South African a pair of bogey sixes.
But Els kept his composure and three solid par figures to finish left him still with a chance of claiming his first Masters title and his fourth Major Championship victory in all.
Alongside him, the end to Lawrie’s round was even more remarkable, the Scot recovering from a horrendous double bogey five at the 12th and a triple bogey eight at the 13th to birdie the 14th and 16th holes and keep alive his hopes of victory.
Moving further down the leaderboard, the next best placed European Tour Members were Angel Cabrera and debutant Tim Clark in a share of 18th place on two over par 218, while Retief Goosen’s 72 saw him finish in a share of 23rd place on 219, one shot ahead of Darren Clarke who had a day to forget.
The 34 year old Ulsterman started the third round in second place on two under par and in the final group of the day with Mike Weir but was out of sorts, the nadir coming at the par five 13th where he carded a quadruple bogey nine and he finished with a 78 for 220, the same mark as another debutant Justin Rose.
But the man they all have to catch in the final round is the experienced Jeff Maggert. The 39 year old Texan started the day at one over par but quietly crept into the lead, three birdies in the closing three holes giving him a 66 and a five under par total of 211.
“This is the position everyone dreams about, isn’t it? Going into the last round of the Masters at Augusta with the lead,” he said. “To be honest I’ve struggled over the last couple of years but I have worked a lot on my short game recently and I think it has shown this week as I haven’t hit the ball that well but here I am at five under.”
While focusing on his own game in the final round, Maggert will undoubtedly cast a glance over his shoulder at the chasing pack and it is likely the man he will most fear seeing is World Number One Tiger Woods.
The 27 year old American is the defending champion and was the overwhelming pre-tournament favourite to create history and become the first player ever to win the Masters title on three consecutive occasions.
That eventuality looked a million miles away however when, out of sorts, he had to get up and down from sand at the last hole in the second round to make the cut right on the mark.
But nothing the World Number One does should surprise anyone any more and he stormed back into contention with a superb third round 66 to move to one under par 215 and a share of fifth place, having started the day in a tie for 43rd.
“I’m right back in this thing,” said Woods, who could have got even closer to the lead had his birdie putt on the final hole not shaved the edge of the cup and stayed above ground. “I knew if I could get to even par or better I would have a chance and I managed to do that – now I’m right back in it.”