Commentary

Don't look back, but Woods may be gaining on leaders

Updated: April 13, 2008, 12:26 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The stately leaderboard located near the 18th green at Augusta National says otherwise, but trust me, Tiger Woods is leading the 2008 Masters.

Saturday is known as Moving Day, and Woods had his bags packed for a trip up the standings. Thanks to his first sub-70 round here since 2005, Woods traveled from 13th place to fifth. Afterward, he probably returned to the Champions Locker Room and practiced slipping on his green jacket.

Woods has gone from an opening round of even-par 72 to a 71 on Friday to a 68 on Saturday. Notice a trend?

"This is the highest score I could have shot today," said Woods after the round. "I hit the ball so well and I hit so many good putts that just skirted the hole. But hey, I put myself right back in the tournament."

But hey, here's the terrifying part, at least, for the rest of the field: The best pressure putter in the game has made exactly one semi-long birdie putt this week. He has played Augusta National's four par-5s in a disappointing -- for him -- 4-under. And just think if he ever figures out how to land a drive in the 18th fairway, rather than in the trees and pine straw.

Yes, I know Trevor Immelman is officially leading this thing at 11-under. He played wonderfully. A 68-68-69. Wow.

Tiger At 54

Tiger Woods has never rallied from a deficit after 54 holes to win a major championship. A look at his history when trailing in the majors:

Tournament After 3 rounds Finish
'07 British 15th/trailed by 8 T-12th
'07 U.S. 2nd/trailed by 2 2nd
'07 Masters 2nd/trailed by 1 T-2nd
'06 Masters 4th/trailed by 2 T-3rd
'05 PGA 20th/trailed by 6 T-4th
'05 U.S. 7th/trailed by 6 T-2nd
'05 PGA 20th/trailed by 6 T-4th
'04 PGA 25th/trailed by 9 T-24th
'04 British 7th/trailed by 4 T-9th
'04 U.S. 19th/trailed by 9 T-17th
'04 Masters 20th/trailed by 9 T-22nd
'03 PGA 43rd/trailed by 13 T-39th
'03 British 3rd/trailed by 2 T-4th
'03 U.S. 24th/trailed by 11 T-20th
'03 Masters 5th/trailed by 4 T-15th
'02 PGA 4th/trailed by 5 2nd
'02 British 67th/trailed by 11 T-28th
'01 PGA 32nd/trailed by 13 T-29th
'01 British 28th/trailed by 5 T-25th
'01 U.S. 23rd/trailed by 9 T-12th
'00 Masters 5th/trailed by 6 5th
'99 British 4th/trailed by 7 T-7th
'99 U.S. 3rd/trailed by 2 T-3rd
'99 British 13th/trailed by 5 T-18th
'98 PGA 6th/trailed by 5 T-10th
'98 British 6th/trailed by 5 3rd
'98 U.S. 18th/trailed by 10 T-18th
'98 Masters 10th/trailed by 5 T-8th
'97 PGA 5th/trailed by 8 T-29th
'97 British 8th/trailed by 8 T-24th
'97 U.S. 21st/trailed by 9 T-19th
But do you really think Woods put his head on the pillow Saturday night and thought, "My gawd, how am I going to beat Immelman?"

Immelman has a six-stroke lead and a Ben & Jerry's-sweet swing, but until someone presents the South African with a majors-related trophy or jacket, I'll take my chances with Woods. Saturday isn't Sunday.

Two strokes behind Immelman is Brandt Snedeker. Or "Sneds." The guy is more down to earth than a grass blade.

I met him for an ESPN The Magazine photo shoot a month or two before he played in the 2004 Masters as an amateur. He posed for hours in the Crow's Nest and loved every minute of it -- just like he's loving every minute of his first Masters as a pro.

But he isn't going to finish ahead of Woods. It isn't Snedeker's fault. It's just Masters reality.

Steve Flesch is in third place at 8-under. He has played fabulously. But the only lefty Woods is mildly concerned about is Phil Mickelson, and Mickelson fell and can't get up, all thanks to an unsightly 75 that put him at 2-under for the tournament.

A stroke behind Flesch is Paul Casey, the Englishman who, while at Arizona State during his recruiting visit in 1996, helped tear down a goalpost after the Sun Devils beat then-No. 1 Nebraska. That won't help him stay ahead of Woods, but it's a pretty cool nugget, isn't it?

Together, Immelman, Snedeker, Flesch and Casey have won exactly zero majors. Until this year, they've played in a combined 44 majors and have a grand total of one top-5 finish (Immelman at the 2005 Masters).

In other words, the Sunday forecast calls for temperatures in the low 60s, wind gusts of 25-35 mph and intermittent sphincter muscle tightening.

Meanwhile, Woods has won 13 majors, including four green jackets, and has 10 other top-5 finishes. This is why Immelman, even with that six-stroke advantage over Woods, could suffer from hearing loss if Tiger puts together a Sunday run and those patrons' cheers start echoing through the pines.

"Anything can happen," Woods said. "You can shoot yourself right out of it, put yourself right back into it."

Woods' 68 put him right back into it. He had two-putt birdies on two of the four par-5s, a nice birdie putt on the par-4 10th, and a kick-in birdie on the par-4 17th after hitting a seeing-eye sand wedge from 117 yards out.

"Well, I could read that one," he said.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty ImagesTiger Woods had plenty to smile about Saturday, but he still trails by six.
It will be nasty here for Round 4. Lots of wind means lots of dry greens, which means it will be like putting on the roof of an old Volkswagen Beetle. Lots of wind means lots of shots will find themselves in painful places.

This helps Woods. The more leaderboard volatility, the better chance Woods has to work toward the lead. Augusta National is fickle that way.

There could be birdies. There could be snowmen. So much is possible on a course that is already harder than memorizing Latin. Throw in the wind gusts, the CBS cameras, the Sunday-induced pressure … and who knows?

"I got a lot of work to do [Sunday]," Woods said.

And he's right. He has to become best friends with red numbers. He has to start sinking more than a few putts. He has to put the fear of Tiger in Immelman, Snedeker, Flesch and Casey. And he has to do it early.

History isn't in his favor. You know this golf fact by heart: Woods has never won a major when trailing after 54 holes.

But here's another fact: You don't want Woods on your bumper and trading paint with you down the back nine of Augusta National. And I say this knowing full well that Zach Johnson overtook Tiger in last year's Masters and Angel Cabrera did the same in the U.S. Open.

Fair enough. But I prefer to channel 1956, when Jack Burke trailed by eight strokes and won the Masters. Or 1996, when Nick Faldo trailed by, ta-da, six strokes and moved past Greg Norman to win here.

It won't be easy for Woods. Then again, it won't be easy for Immelman, Snedeker, Flesch or Casey.

"So we'll see what happens," Woods said.

Can't wait. Neither can Woods.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter