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Tiger roars, soars to top

Tiger Woods finds himself on familiar ground, atop a major after three rounds, this time tied with Retief Goosen.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2002

Tiger Woods finds himself on familiar ground, atop a major after three rounds, this time tied with Retief Goosen.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The ball flew toward the flag, and Steve Williams began to urge it closer to the cup. He knows the numbers, and we're not talking about the distance to the pin. His very famous boss is nearly unbeatable in this spot, and another birdie would put him there again.

Williams, the caddie for Tiger Woods, made the long journey up the hill Saturday afternoon at Augusta National's 18th, then got a glimpse of how close the ball was to the hole.

Woods coaxed it in for his ninth birdie of a 26-hole day and one that tied him for the 54-hole Masters lead.

"Stevie and I really wanted to get into that final group, just make birdie on 18," Woods said. "He was so funny. When I hit my shot in the air, he says, "Get in the final group.' My ball, it just took off and he knew it was a good shot the way I hit it."

The Woods-Williams team got its wish, capping 6-under-par 66 that tied Retief Goosen for the lead at 11-under 205. The reigning U.S. Open champion shot 69, and the twosome will be today's final pairing.

That is significant because the Masters champion has come out of the final group for 11 straight years.

And for Woods, the view looks especially nice. He has won 22 of 24 PGA Tour events when tied or leading heading into the final round. He never has failed to win a major championship when in this position, having won six Grand Slam events, including last year's Masters.

"I've been there before, and I look forward to it," said Woods, who would join Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo as the only champions to repeat.

And Goosen, who overcame being struck by lightning in his native South Africa as a child and his bumbling, stumbling finish last year at Southern Hills to win the U.S. Open in a playoff, didn't emit the vibes of a confident major champion.

"Playing with Tiger, who has won around here twice and done so well in the past, you know he knows the course so well," Goosen said. "I haven't really done well here in the past, so (today) is going to be something new for me. I'll try and stick to my game plan and see if I can make a few more putts."

Woods and Goosen were two shots ahead of second-round leader Vijay Singh, who bogeyed two of the last four holes to shoot 72. Phil Mickelson (68), Sergio Garcia (70) and Ernie Els (72) were tied for fourth, four shots back. Two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal (71) was five back at 210.

Eight of the top 10 on the leaderboard are foreign players, and six of the top seven players in the world fill the top six spots.

"If you look right down the World Ranking, that would be pretty much a good criteria for who would play well and that seems to be the case," said Mickelson, the second-ranked player in the world who has hopes of winning his first major. "It seems like all the top 10, for the most part, are up there. This golf course seems to bring that out."

For Woods, the day began with a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call and ended in darkness on the driving range. The nine birdies and one bogey in between made up six shots on Singh.

Woods had to finish eight holes in the morning, and started with a 10-foot par putt on the 11th that he made. He also saved pars at the 14th and 17th holes, and made birdie at Nos. 13 and 15 to trail Singh by four entering the third round.

Goosen also played well in the morning, pulling within one of Singh to begin the third round. He can become the first in Masters history to shoot four rounds in the 60s.

Because of heavy rain that drenched the course on Friday and another delay on Saturday morning, Masters officials sent players off both tees in the afternoon, a first here since 1982.

Woods, who leads the field in driving distance with an average of 303.2 yards, took advantage of the soft conditions by shooting at the flags. He has nine consecutive rounds under par at Augusta National, a Masters record.

Is Woods beatable? Well, has won just three times since last year's Masters, and only once this year. At least that's the mind-set needed to overcome him.

"There's no doubt he's a great player and that's why he's won so many majors and so many tournaments in so little time," Garcia said. "But I strongly think that the gap is closing, and we're trying to make it even closer."

And defy the numbers.

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