AUGUSTA — The longest, strangest day at the Masters for Tiger Woods began with a text message from his agent Saturday morning to meet with Augusta National officials nearly six hours before his tee time. It ended some 10 hours later with a relieved fist pump for a key par that kept him in the mix for another green jacket.
It was far different for the two guys atop the leaderboard.
Brandt Snedeker, an emotional wreck when he last contended at the Masters five years ago, was the model of calm as he opened with 12 pars and fired off three late birdies for a 3-under 69.
“I’m not here to get a good finish,” Snedeker said. “I’m not here to finish top 5. I’m here to win, and that’s all I’m going to be focused on tomorrow. I realize what I have to do to do that, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that happens.”
Angel Cabrera, who has virtually disappeared from the world scene since he won the Masters four years ago, felt comfortable on a difficult course as he birdied two of the last three holes for a 69 to join Snedeker in a share of the lead. It marks the third time in the last six years Cabrera has been in the last group at The Masters.
“That helps you to be more calm and have that experience,” Cabrera said. “It all adds up and helps.”
They were at 7-under 209 heading into a final group that figures to be as dynamic as ever, with 13 players separated by five shots, a list that includes major champions (Woods, Cabrera), aging champions (Bernhard Langer) and a half-dozen players who have been on the cusp of majors before.
Woods looms large, for more than just his star power.
For a few tense hours in the morning, it was not clear if Woods was going to get a chance to play.
Masters officials discovered late Friday evening that Woods had taken a bad drop in the second round and should have added two shots to his score.
Under normal circumstances, he would have been disqualified for signing an incorrect card. Officials took the blame for not alerting Woods to a potential problem — they found nothing wrong at first glance before he signed — and kept him in the tournament with two shots added to his score. Woods was covered under a 2-year-old rule that prevents DQs when a violation is reported by television viewers.
“It certainly was a distraction early,” Woods said after three birdies on his last seven holes for a 70. “It happens and you move on. I was ready to play come game time.
“I’m right there in the ball game, “Woods said. “I’m four back with a great shot to win this championship.”
So is Snedeker.
He’s been building toward a moment like this for the last year, and he seized his chance on a glorious afternoon by playing without a bogey. It was only two months ago when Snedeker was regarded the hottest player in golf when in three straight weeks he was runner-up to Woods, runner-up to Phil Mickelson and then won at Pebble Beach. His momentum was slowed by sore ribs that kept him out of golf for a month, though he appears to be hitting his stride.
Cabrera, whose two major titles include a Masters win in 2009, has plunged to No. 269 in the world.
Woods, the No. 1 player in the world who already has won three times this year, was the heavy favorite going into the Masters to capture a green jacket for the first time since 2005 and end his five-year drought in the majors.
His big move came after a bogey on the 11th hole, leaving him six shots behind as he made his way through a back nine that has not treated him kindly of late. But he ran off three birdies on the next four holes, and made clutch par saves on the 16th and 18th to stay in the game.
History is not on his side. Woods has never won a major from behind, every Masters champion has been no worse than a tie for fourth going into Sunday dating to Faldo’s comeback in 1989. But at least he’s still in the game.
That was never in doubt to the officials running the Masters. Fred Ridley, chairman of the competition committees, said he looked at video as Woods was playing the 18th hole Friday and saw no need to ask him about the drop because he didn’t detect a violation. It was only after Woods’ post-round interview when he implicated himself by saying he went back a few yards by design that it became an issue.
Because he saw no problem at first with the drop and let Woods sign his card without talking to him, Ridley said it would have been “grossly unfair to Tiger to have disqualified him.” He said the notion of a DQ was “not even on the table.”
Woods couldn’t have been too shaken up by the morning activities. He birdied the first hole. The key for everyone was simply to stay somewhere around contention, and that wasn’t easy. Rory McIlroy was only three shots out of the lead when he took a bogey on the seventh hole. Little did Boy Wonder realize that it would start a nasty cycle. With a pair of 7s on his card on the back nine — wind shifts led to a triple bogey on the 11th and a double bogey on the 15th — he shot 42 on the back for a 79.
“I play 7 through 11 in 5-over par and basically my chances in the tournament are gone,” McIlroy said. “So it’s very disappointing. I feel like I have been playing well coming in here and it’s just a frustrating day here.”
Former PGA champion Keegan Bradley had an 82, while Mickelson shot 40 on the back nine for the second straight day and had a 77. Guan Tianlang, the 14-year-old from China, went his second straight round without a birdie and had a 77. He was still smiling, soaking in his weekend at Augusta as the youngest player to make a cut in a PGA Tour-sanctioned tournament.
Meanwhile, Snedeker takes an amazing streak into the final round. He has gone 27 consecutive holes without a bogey at Augusta National, and he has a clear plan of what he needs to do be fitted for a green jacket.
“If I drive the ball in the fairway and play the par 5s well tomorrow, I’m going to have a really good day.”