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Immelman Hangs In There

Trevor Immelman cards his third straight score in the 60s with a 3-under-par 69 to take a two-shot lead heading into the final round.

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By Leonard Shapiro
W ashington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 2008

AUGUSTA, Ga., April 12 -- Early torrential showers softened greens Saturday at Augusta National Golf Club, leading to some sublime scoring and plenty of rousing roars in the third round of the 72nd Masters. Tiger Woods crept steadily up the leader board, only to watch 36-hole leader Trevor Immelman rally on his back nine and stay six shots ahead of the No. 1 player in the world entering the final round on Sunday, when gusting winds are in the forecast.

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Immelman withstood a near-disaster at the 530-yard 15th hole when his third shot nearly spun off the green and into the water in front. But the ball hung up on the soggy, sticky slope, and he made a critical par save that went a long way toward giving him a two-shot lead over playing partner Brandt Snedeker, the first time Immelman has led a major championship after 54 holes.

With one last brilliant shot from the 18th fairway and a two-foot birdie putt, Immelman, a 28-year-old South African, posted a round of 3-under-par 69 and was at 11-under 205, good for a three-shot cushion over 40-year-old left-hander Steve Flesch (69) and a four-shot advantage over Englishman Paul Casey (69).

Immelman's good fortune at 15 was reminiscent of a shot Fred Couples hit at the par-3 12th hole in the final round of the 1992 Masters, when his ball somehow hung up on a bank just above Rae's Creek guarding the green. Couples made his par and went on to win by two shots over Raymond Floyd.

"I was home in South Africa watching it," Immelman said of Couples's good fortune. "But this was the 15th hole of the third round. That was the 12th hole of the final round. I'm extremely fortunate, but there's still a long way to go. I'm going to give it my best shot."

Heavy rain soaked the course just after noon and caused a 45-minute stoppage in play just before Woods was scheduled to tee off. The delay hardly seemed to faze Woods, who birdied his second hole, and as the day wore on, neither did a more forgiving golf course that played a touch easier than it had over the first two rounds.

With a bogey-free 4-under 68, punctuated by yet another stunning par from the right-side woods at the 18th hole, Woods vaulted from a tie for 13th at the start of play into fifth place at 5-under 211. But Immelman's late heroics will make it extremely difficult for Woods, who never has won a major title while trailing after 54 holes.

Woods's greatest comeback victory came in 2000, when he rallied from five behind after 54 holes and seven back with eight holes to play to prevail by two shots in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. But a 7,445-yard Augusta National course on a windy day is hardly conducive to major comebacks in its current configuration.

The greatest Sunday comeback in Masters history came in 1956, when Jack Burke started the final 18 holes eight shots behind but won the tournament.

"The guy I'm most concerned with right now is Trevor Immelman," Snedeker said. "He's two ahead of me. He's got a big lead. On this course, it can be one hole, but he's playing fantastic golf right now. I'm sure Tiger is going to be there somewhere on the back nine tomorrow. I'll worry about that when it comes."

Snedeker, the 2007 PGA Tour rookie of the year, withstood three consecutive bogeys early on his back nine, including a shot into the creek at the 13th, and rallied with three birdies in his final five holes, including a tough six-foot birdie putt at the 18th.

Immelman managed his game and his emotions as well as could be expected for a player who never has truly contended in a major championship. Though he played his opening nine holes in even-par 36 and trailed Snedeker by a shot entering the back side, he had birdies at the 13th and 14th holes and that one last brilliant birdie at 18 to play the back in 3-under 33.

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