Friday, 19 March 2010

Three decades after Gary Player became the last South African winner of the Masters, Trevor Immelman sets out on his quest to emulate his famous countryman at Augusta National.

Only this week Player created a new record by playing in his 51st Masters Tournament. Immelman is playing his six, but already has a first Green Jacket tantalisingly within reach after three brilliant rounds in the sixties.

Immelman, recently returned from surgery, followed a pair of 68s with a three under par 69 to establish an 11 under total of 205 – two ahead of American Brandt Snedeker, three in front of left hander Steve Flesch and four in front of England’s Paul Casey.

Most interesting of all if the man in fifth place, six shots off the lead. World Number One, Tiger Woods, broke clear of two moderate rounds of 72 and 71 to fire a 68 which puts him on the cusp of contention on 211.

However Casey, with two top ten finishes to his name from just three Masters appearances, remains the most realistic hope of a first European victory since Nick Faldo triumphed at Augusta in 1996.

Casey twice held a share of the lead during a topsy-turvy third round, which was delayed soon after the start o play for 40 minutes due to a thunderstorm which softened the course dramatically.

It was a far cry from 2007, when Zach Johnson won with a one over par total. Casey, who set out on four under, reached the turn at eight under and sharing the lead with Immelman, who failed to make up one single shot on his overnight score.

Out in 32, the English Ryder Cup player enjoyed a roller-coaster ride over the notorious back nine at Augusta, making three bogeys and two birdies for his second successive 69.

Immelman, who started the day one stroke clear of Snedeker, had not made a birdie by the time Woods was holding court on the edge of the 18th green after charging home in 33 for a 68 which might have been a 65 on a better putting day.

However, not to be outdone, the impressive South African posted three birdies of his own over the homeward stretch – including a tap-in at the last – to match Woods’s inward 33, jointly the best of the day.

Now Immelman becomes the latest player to feel the heat on a final day at Augusta – a day which promises to be cold and windy and a contrast to three days of warmth and light breezes. So how will the 28 year old cope with such pressure?

“I don't know” was the honest answer. “ I've never had the lead in a Major going into the final round so I have no clue how to answer your question.  All I can ask for myself is to go out there and you know, play as hard as I can and believe in myself.  I've got to believe in myself tomorrow, and hope for the best.”

Casey played in the penultimate group with  Bernhard Langer on his Masters debut in 2004, and will do so again with Flesch this time around. He believes he is now better equipped – and less excitable – than he was four years ago as he challenges for his first Major title.

“I feel very happy with my position” said Casey.  “Two 69s in a row is something  I'm extremely happy with.  This is  probably the best golf I've played around Augusta National and I feel very comfortable. 

“Today was a day of up and downs, birdies and bogeys; but, I take the good out of it.  I enjoyed myself out there.  We had a lot of fun, soaked up the atmosphere, and that's what I'm going to continue to do tomorrow and not worry about anybody else.

“I’ve put in a lot of hard work” he continued.  “I spent a lot of time with Peter Kostis during the last two weeks hitting different shots that I think are required for this golf course, and a lot of time on the fitness and a lot of time on the mental side of things.  You know, I'm very, very happy with the state of my game.  I haven't played good golf coming into this tournament.  So far this year it's been a little lacklustre.  But I really feel the season begins here.”

Open Champion Padraig Harrington, who opened with a two over par 74, showed commendable fortitude by shooting a 71 on Friday and a third round 69 for 214 and a share of seventh place on two under par.

He enthused: “It was a good day for scoring with the greens soft after the storms. I feel reasonably happy with the score, although I feel I should have done a little bit better. Obviously I was trying to do the right thing early in the round and things weren’t happening so it was nice to make three birdies in the last four holes. I am pleased, but certainly the opportunity was there to shoot a low score.

“I am certainly looking at the guys on the leader board . Who knows? I hear tomorrow is going to be a blustery and colder day. Certainly it could make it awkward for the people out there leading. Yes, my eye is on the leaders.

“I think anybody who is chasing would like a windy day because it makes things awkward. If I get the breaks tomorrow so be it. If the guy leading gets a few gusts wrong, it’s a tough day for him. Definitely everybody chasing would be looking for an awkward day and hope to get the breaks.

“It’s a strong course and I hit my second shot in the water at 13th and if I look back at my round today that was where two shots went. That would have made it a very sweet round if I had birdied 13th but you can’t go all out at every pin position. You have to choose the right shots at the right time.

“Last year I was happy because I was in contention and I would be happy to get myself into that position again and have a chance going into the back nine. I’m content that I prepared well but not 100 per cent by any means. Regardless of the result I will look at how I prepared but I am not interested in looking at anywhere else but first.”

Ian Poulter who began at five under par, slipped back into the pack with a 75 but one two under par, he remains level with Harrington. Another pair of Englishmen, Nick Dougherty and Justin Rose, finished the day over par – one over and three over respectively.


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