AUGUSTA, Ga. Trevor Immelman watched one last shot turn out better than he expected Saturday in the Masters, each one keeping him atop the leaderboard and Tiger Woods farther behind.
Immelman was headed for double bogey or worse on the 15th hole until his ball somehow stopped on a steep slope toward the pond, allowing him to escape with par. On the 18th, he barked instructions to his ball "Sit down," he pleaded only to see it stop 30 inches away for a final birdie and a 3-under 69.
That gave him a two-shot lead over Brandt Snedeker, two players in their 20s who will get their first taste of major championship pressure in the final group at Augusta National.
Perhaps more importantly, Immelman stayed six shots ahead of Woods.
Under 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 shot. 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 in 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. No one has done that since Nick Faldo beat Greg Norman in 1996.
His hope might come from the inexperience atop the leaderboard. Woods was the only player within seven shots who has won a major.
"There's such a long way to go," 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 15th in a moment reminiscent of Fred Couples in 1992, when a tee shot on the par-3 12th was held up by a blade of grass. That break carried Couples to his lone major title.
Immelman hit a sand wedge that spun back, caught the slope and rolled quickly off the front of the green. Perhaps there was just enough rain to keep the slope soft. The ball slowed to a trickle, then stopped. One more turn, and it would have been in the water.
"I was begging for it to stop as soon as it could," Immelman said. "I knew there was a chance it was going to go in the water. I must say, I couldn't quite believe it when it stayed up."
He chipped to 5 feet and saved par.
Immelman recalls watching the Masters at home in South Africa when Couples dodged a double bogey, but he quickly pointed out a few major differences.
"This is the 15th hole of the third round, and his was the 12th hole of the final round," Immelman said. "I was extremely fortunate that my ball stayed up there, but there's still a long way to go in this tournament."
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 birdies 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 that was 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.