When early starter Jim Furyk tied the Memorial tournament record for low third-round score with a 64 Saturday morning, he had no illusions about how close he'd be by the end of the day.
"I think someone, at least one player, will separate from the field," he said, knowing conditions at Muirfield Village would remain ideal for more sizzling scoring.
As it turned out, a number of players took full advantage of no wind, fast-running fairways and receptive greens to breeze far ahead of Furyk, who finished the third round at 6 under par for the tournament. The most opportunistic of all was David Toms, who had a hole-in-one on the front nine and an eagle on the back and matched Furyk's 64, finishing at 12-under 204 entering what surely will be a rollicking final round Sunday.
When Toms holed out for a par at the 18th hole, he was leading the tournament, but when play was completed early this evening, he had to settle for a share of the lead with Fred Couples (66), Jeff Sluman (68) and Bart Bryant (66). There were 26 scores in the 60s, and 42 players in the remaining field of 79 broke par.
"What did Tiger finish?" Sluman asked later. Told that Woods was at 8-under 208, four shots behind, Sluman said, "Well, anybody within eight under has probably got a pretty good chance."
Woody Austin (65) and Jonathan Kaye (68) were a shot behind at 11-under 205 and also could have joined the leaders if they hadn't each bogeyed the 18th. Kaye had the disadvantage of playing with Woods all day, dealing with swirling, impolite galleries filled with fans who began dashing away from greens when Woods finished up, even as Kaye was trying to focus on his own putts.
Woods, who has won this tournament three times, was unable to make much of a move himself, posting a 71. He may have had an inkling it wasn't going to be his day when a six-foot putt for par at the second hole seemed halfway into the hole before it did a 360-degree turn around the cup and stayed out for the first of three bogeys on his card.
Playing in his first event since the Masters, Couples, 45, prevailed here in 1998 and was runner-up last year to Ernie Els. His chronically sore back has caused him to cut back his schedule significantly, and this week he has been wearing a somewhat cumbersome brace that helped him make the cut at the Masters and get through all four rounds.
Couples pushed within a shot of the lead at the 503-yard, par-5 15th with a driver off the tee and a 5-iron second shot to within 15 feet of the flag. He made that eagle putt to get to 11 under, then thrilled the thousands sitting in the amphitheater hills surrounding the 18th hole when a 15-foot putt curled into the hole for the sixth birdie on his card and only his second score in the 60s in his last 12 rounds.
"I just love the place," Couples said. "We don't play courses like this every day. Next week at Congressional, I can't wait to get there [for the Booz Allen Classic], but I can wait one more day, and then Pinehurst [for the U.S. Open]. This is a big three weeks."
Toms's day began with a 25-foot birdie putt at the first hole and quickly escalated when he holed out a 5-iron on the 200-yard fourth hole. His ball hit a few yards in front of the hole, took one bounce, clanked off the flag and disappeared into the cup. He birdied three of his last five holes on the front nine, then hit a 3-iron to 15 feet at the 15th and made that eagle putt.
Still, Toms said the most important work may have come at the 567-yard 11th, after he had hit his second shot from the left rough into a creek on the right side. His next shot wedge from 115 yards left him a 15-foot putt, and he made that for a critical par.
"Oh, it was big," he said. "The putt I made for par there was probably as big as anything that happened today."
Toms also had to contend with a playing partner, Rory Sabbatini, who staggered around the course with a stomach virus that hit him at 2 a.m. Sabbatini was seen throwing up several times, yet still managed to post a 69 before he was taken to the medical tent and given IV fluids to overcome dehydration.
"I knew he didn't feel well," Toms said. "It got pretty bad out there. It was tough for him, but it was funny, he was on 15 over in the woods throwing up and then he came back in and hit a 3-iron right at the flag and made eagle. I was impressed with that."
Sluman, a 47-year-old veteran and the leader after each of the first two rounds, had another impressive afternoon, again putting well with the so-called "claw" grip he switched to recently. Until his opening 65 Thursday, Sluman had gone 11 rounds here without breaking 70 but now seems sure to have his first top 10 finish, if not his seventh career victory, in 15 appearances.
"If I looked at my statistics the last three or four years, I've probably driven it longer and straighter and hit more greens than I did leading up 20 years before that in my career," he said. "Putting has been the only thing holding me back. But I've got confidence now, and this stroke enables me to do everything I needed to do. I can't explain it. I'm just happy it's happening to me, and I don't see myself using another grip for a while."