AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It certainly hasn't been pretty, with missed puts, ugly doubles and triples and no rounds under 68 since Friday, but we're set up for an exciting one-round sprint to the finish of the 70th Masters Tournament.
Phil Mickelson holds the lead alone at 4 under, but 10 players are within three shots. Fred Couples is one stroke back and the sentimental favorite -- at 46 years old he's the same age as Jack Nicklaus was 20 years ago when he won a record sixth green jacket -- while Tiger Woods sits two back, looking to record (surprisingly enough) his first come-from-behind major championship win.
If you aren't interested in "favorites," Chad Campbell is still around, two behind, after leaking away three shots in his third round. Stephen Ames, the Players Championship winner, has quietly moved up the board with back-to-back 70s, while Darren Clarke recovered from a gruesome, watery triple bogey on 15 to get back to 2-under and within two shots of the lead. It's obviously foolish to count Woods out when he's only two behind, but he's chasing a different Phil Mickelson this time -- one who has two majors on his resume.
The wind will make the course play much more difficult, and it's hard to imagine that there's a 65 or 66 out there for somebody to shoot and put this thing away. If Mickelson shoots 70, he wins his second green jacket. Tiger's goal will be to put pressure on Mickelson -- and the rest of the field -- early, maybe with a downwind eagle on No. 2. It will be fun to see if Couples has one more great round on this course left in him.
Now on to the winners and losers from third-round play:
Phil Mickelson: Mickelson seems to enjoy these nail-biting final-round dramas differently than anybody else. Tiger is all glowering focus, while you think Mickelson is ready to wave to kids in the crowd at any moment. It might be some kind of put-on, but it seems to work. After a frustrating decade of carrying around the 'best-player-not-to-win-one' tag, Mickelson is in position to win his third major in as many years and second in a row dating back to last year's PGA Championship. He's doing it with what has become his standard M.O.: play conservative on the difficult holes and go for birdies or better when he's got some margin for error. He birdied three of the four par-5s in his third round and played the rest of the course 1-over. He's been in control of his game all week, and looks very comfortable playing the role of front-runner. You know he hated to be the guy to put the green jacket on Tiger last year. He'd certainly enjoy making Tiger return the favor tonight.
Fred Couples: The combination of elements at this year's Masters has been perfect for Couples -- dry conditions early that made it difficult for anybody to run away with it, then wet conditions that reward players who can hit it long and high. He's always enjoyed it here -- making 22 cuts in a row says that about him -- and he has one more real chance to win a second major. He'll have to avoid some of the mental errors that have plagued him over the years -- like the loose approach shot into the water on 13 this morning -- but a conservative 69 would make for a great story.
Tiger Woods: Does the rest of the field feel good about the fact that Woods hasn't played well at all this week? Or does it worry because he's struggled so much but sits just two strokes behind with a round to play? Woods made a nice birdie on 10 first thing this morning, but erased his early momentum by hitting it in the water on 11 and making bogey, then bogeying Nos. 14, 15 and 16 to fall to 1-under. The putter seemed to wake up on the back nine, and that might be enough to help him scrape out a fifth green jacket with his C-plus game.
Chad Campbell and Rocco Mediate: The chatter in the pressroom Friday night was about Campbell's ability to play with the lead. It looked like he was going to handle it with no problem after the rain delay, coming out firing with birdies on No. 1 and No. 2. But Campbell has always been a streak putter, vulnerable to stretches where he loses confidence. He missed short par putts on No. 7 and No. 9 to fall out of the lead, and made only one birdie on the back nine to shoot 75. Mediate spun out on a long approach shot on 15 and appeared to hurt his leg. He made par, but limped around the rest of his round. He was in position to play in the final group, but bladed his bunker shot over the 18th green and made double to drop to 2 under.
Tim Clark: The tiny South African actually had it to 7-under after a birdie on the eighth first thing this morning, but it quickly got sideways on him. He bogeyed nine, dropped another shot on 14, then three more on the last two holes to fall back to 2 under and squander the front-nine 32 he recorded. He's certainly not out of the tournament, but Clark hasn't looked great on his short putts, and the pressure is only going to build.
Vijay Singh: You have to wonder how many times Singh can keep coming back. The back-to-back doubles on Friday knocked him out of the lead, and a lackluster front nine this morning dropped him five behind Clark's lead. Singh got it back to 4 under on 15, but made consecutive bogies on 16 and 17 to sink into a tie for fourth. His ball-striking just isn't as sharp as it has been, and he's not going to putt well enough to make up for that.
Ernie Els: On a day when an even-par 72 would have kept him right in the clot of players a shot or two out of the lead, Els sprayed it all over the lot and most likely shot himself out of the tournament. He had to rally with birdies on 13 and 15 just to get to even for the tournament. He's four behind, but more problematic, he's got 10 players between him and the lead.