AUGUSTA, Ga. —Trevor Immelman stood frozen in the fairway when the ball kept going, spinning off the 15th green and onto the ramp of tightly mowed grass, tumbling toward the water.
One more turn and it would plop into the pond, leading to double bogey or worse Saturday at the Masters.
“I was begging for it to stop as soon as it could,” he said.
Somehow, it did.
Immelman escaped with par and finished with a birdie for a 3-under 69, giving him a two-shot lead over Brandt Snedeker going into a final round sure to be filled with heart-pounding moments.
“I have no clue how the ball stayed up there,” Immelman said. “But obviously, I’m thankful.”
It was reminiscent of Fred Couples’ big break in 1992, when a blade of grass kept his tee shot from rolling into Rae’s Creek in the final round, allowing him to save par on his way to a one-shot victory.
“There’s a massive difference,” Immelman said. “This is the 15th hole of the third round, and his was the 12th hole of the final round. I was extremely fortunate that my ball stayed up there. But there’s still a long way to go in this tournament.”
And Tiger Woods is still in the picture, just barely.
In the easiest conditions at Augusta in three years, Woods had to settle for a bogey-free round of 68 that was probably the worst he could have done. He has never won a major when trailing going into the final round, and he has never won a PGA Tour event when trailing by more than five shots after 54 holes.
“If I had made a few more putts, I’d be right there,” Woods said. “But I’m right there anyway.”
That depends on the four guys in front of him, none of whom has ever won a major.
It starts with Immelman, who was at 11-under 205 on a damp, cloudy afternoon that included a 40-minute delay because of rain.
Snedeker steadied himself after three straight bogeys around Amen Corner, getting those shots back over the final five holes, including a 10-foot birdie on the 18th for a 2-under 70 that put him in the final group.
Steve Flesch was the best Lefty in his pairing with Phil Mickelson, also finishing with a birdie for a 69 to reach 8-under 208. Paul Casey, among four players who had a share of the lead, shot a 69 and was another shot back.
Casey has the most experience on this kind of stage, having played on two Ryder Cup teams. He atoned for a sloppy bogey on the 15th with an 8-iron to 6 feet for birdie on the 16th, one of only four in the third round.
Flesch wasn’t even expecting to be at the Masters, qualifying late in the year by winning two PGA Tour events against weak fields to finish among the top 30 on the money list. Now, he is only three shots back with 18 holes to play.
Standing on the 18th green before making his 4-foot birdie putt, Flesch gazed at the large leaderboard.
“I was curious like everyone else—what did Tiger shoot today?” he said.
It was the first time in a dozen rounds at the Masters that Woods broke 70, but he had reason to expect much more. The third round began under a light drizzle and was stopped for 40 minutes when storms rolled through eastern Georgia. That made the course soft and long, the greens receptive. With no wind, it was ripe for a charge.
But all Woods could muster was one birdie putt outside 10 feet. Two other birdies came on par 5s when he was putting for eagle, another with a wedge inside a foot on the 17th. Woods missed four straight putts inside 15 feet on the front nine that could have turned his fortunes, and an 8-foot birdie on the par-5 15th.
“This is the highest score I could have shot today,” Woods said. “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.”
Six shots is a lot to make up in the final round at the Masters, considering no one has done that since Nick Faldo beat Greg Norman in 1996. Woods’ best hope might come from the weather, and from the inexperience atop the leaderboard.
“All I can ask for myself is to go out there and play as hard as I can, and believe in myself,” Immelman said.
“There are so many great players out there. If I rest on a two-shot lead, I’m not going to do very well. I’ve just got to have positive thoughts and give it my best shot.”
Gary Player is the only South African to win the Masters, the last of his three victories coming 30 years ago.
Immelman’s lone mistake came on the par-3 fourth, but he was solid the rest of the afternoon and surged ahead with two spectacular shots and one incredible break.
He hit a low pitch across Rae’s Creek that hopped once and skidded to a stop 2 feet behind the cup for birdie on the par-3 13th for the outright lead. Then he went two shots ahead with an 8-foot birdie on the 14th.
It all looked as though it might wash away on the par-5 15th. Immelman hit a sand wedge for his third shot that came in low and spun back quickly, all the way off the green and down the hill.
“I knew there was a chance it was going to go in the water,” Immelman said. “I must say, I couldn’t quite believe it when it stayed up.”
Snedeker, playing his first Masters as a pro, nearly let his big chance get away with an errant tee shot on the 11th, a tee shot that sailed over the 12th green and an approach into Rae’s Creek that led to bogey on the 13th.
But he followed with consecutive bogeys inside 10 feet, and another one on the 18th to get into the final group.
“I’m going out there to play good golf and see what I’ve got,” Snedeker said. “This is the ultimate test for us.”
It could be a test in other ways. Behind the clouds was a front expected to send temperatures into the low 60s and bring 20 mph winds, the scariest conditions on a course where even a breeze can play tricks.
That might be what Woods needs to keep alive his fading hopes of a calendar Grand Slam.
“I’m sure he’s going to be a factor,” Snedeker said. “His name is going to be on the leaderboard somewhere tomorrow. It’s going to be there on the back nine. You have to realize that Trevor and all of us in front of him, if we go out there and play a good round of golf, he’s going to have to play an extremely great round of golf to beat us.”