Toms' 66 gives him commanding five-shot lead

Updated: May 11, 2003, 9:49 AM ET
Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- David Toms felt hot blasts of wind against his face as he warmed up on the range, and figured anything under par Saturday would give him a chance at winning for the first time in 20 months.

He was much better than anyone expected, a 6-under 66 to match the best score at Quail Hollow and build a five-stroke lead in the Wachovia Championship.

Now, the question is whether anyone has a chance to catch him.

"He's doing a lot of good things on a very difficult course,'' said J.P. Hayes, among the three guys Toms left in his wake. "Five shots is not impossible, but it will be difficult.''

Toms chipped in for eagle and played the dangerous finishing holes in 1 under to pull away from the pack and take a big step toward his first victory in 42 events.

"When I was on the range, I was thinking about shooting 2 or 3 under, just like the first two days,'' Toms said. "I knew if I wasn't in the lead, that would at least have a chance.''

Tiger Woods is the only other player this year to lead by as many as five shots after 54 holes. He went on to win at Bay Hill by 11 strokes despite a nasty stomach virus.

Toms left everyone at Quail Hollow feeling sick.

The former PGA champion was at 11-under 205 and had a big cushion over Kirk Triplett (67), Robert Gamez (71) and Hayes (72).

"We kept hearing the cheers behind us,'' Gamez said. "I'm just going to see if I can get some birdies early and put some pressure on David.''

Nick Price, who led by one going into Saturday, tried to recover from a sluggish start but consecutive birdies late in the round still left him at 74.

Price was in a large group at 5-under 211 that included Charles Howell III, who was only two behind Toms with three holes to play until back-to-back bogeys.

Fred Couples was happy just to finish his 74, leaving him seven strokes behind.

Couples, one of five players who had the lead at one point in the third round, was bending over to read a short par putt on No. 10 when his left knee buckled as he tried to stand. He grabbed his lower back -- a decade-old injury -- and promptly hooked his next tee shot into the trees. He was in obvious pain the rest of the round.

"I'm walking and swinging, but it's like a flinch at every shot,'' Couples said. "I hit a couple of very good shots, but most of them were pull-hooks. I need to go rest and play much better and move my way back up.''

Toms was simply too good.

A 5-wood into 12 feet on the 250-yard sixth hole, followed by a birdie from the greenside bunker on the par-5 seventh gave him the lead, and he pulled away with a chip from the front of the 10th green that banged off the stick and dropped for eagle.

"That kind of got me going,'' he said.

After a two-putt birdie on the 15th, Toms separated himself from the pack with a 7-iron out of the bunker on No. 16 that just cleared another bunker and settled about 8 feet from the cup for a rare birdie.

"That surprises me,'' he said when told of his five-stroke lead. "I guess it means the guys behind me weren't playing that well.''

Instead, it was a case of Toms being on his game. Now he just has to finish them off Sunday to win for the first time since the Michelob Championship in late 2001.

That was the year Toms arrived as one of golf's top players, winning the PGA Championship at Atlanta with a memorable decision to lay up on the final hole.

He admits to getting antsy about winning. It has been 41 tournaments since the last time he held a trophy at the end of four days.

Toms didn't disappear. He has finished in the top five 11 times since his last victory, and lost on the 35th hole to Woods in the Match Play Championship earlier this year. Still, no victories has been nagging at him for over a year.

"It's been a long time for me,'' Toms said. "For guys who don't quite have the ability of Tiger Woods, Ernie Els or Phil Mickelson, it isn't easy. I can't be off and win golf tournaments.''

He appears to be on top of his game this week, and now just needs another solid round.

Toms will be paired Sunday with Triplett, who shot his 67 earlier in the day and figured it would leave him close to the lead.

Howell figured to be the closest to Toms when he pounded his drive on the par-5 15th and looked like he might pull within one shot. But Howell failed to make birdie, then picked up his first bogey of the tournament by hitting into the trees on No. 16.

Howell dropped another stroke when his tee shot on the peninsula-green 17th went through the putting surface and got stuck between the rocks lining the lake.

Nick Price had his ball on the tee at the first hole when he was introduced in the final pairing. "With 15 PGA Tour victories ...'' Price looked perplexed -- he has won 18 times on tour. "... Including the 1992 Masters,'' the official continued. Price looked over at Fred Couples and smiled, then bent over and plucked his tee from the ground. ... Tournament officials moved up the tee on the 346-yard 14th hole, so that it measured 299 yards to the pin, with water down the left side. Nine of the 12 players who went for the green made birdie; the other three made par. ... CBS Sports analyst Peter Oosterhuis must have thought he was back in England when he described the 70-foot birdie putt by J.P. Hayes on the 17th hole. "It's more than the length of a cricket pitch,'' he said. The putt either lipped out or hit a wicket.

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press