AUGUSTA (Georgia) - TREVOR Immelman held firm for pole position to win the Masters with a third round of 69 on Saturday that gave him a two-stroke lead going into Sunday's finale.
The South African started the day as tournament leader and after a wobble or two was still there at the end of the day with a 11-under-par total of 205.
That left him two strokes clear of last year's US PGA Rookie of the Year Brandt Snedeker who had a 70, with 40-year-old US journeyman Steve Flesch, who carded a 69, a further stroke back.
English Ryder Cup star Paul Casey was alone in fourth at seven under after a 69.
Immelman's stellar form also made it all the tougher for Tiger Woods to keep his Grand Slam hopes on track despite a battling four-under-par from the world No.1.
It was the American's best round at Augusta since a 65 in the third round of the 2005 tournament, but it still left him a daunting six strokes off the pace.
In his favour, though, none of the four players ahead of him have won a major.
It was a minor miracle that Immelman was even playing in the Masters having undergone a major operation just 14 weeks ago to remove a golf-ball sized benign tumour from his diaphragm.
But Augusta has brought out the best in him before and so it proved to be the case again with back-to-back 68s giving him the halfway lead.
The Florida resident dropped briefly out of the lead after bogeying the fourth but he recovered that on the eighth, and back-to-back birdies at 13 and 14 put him into a three-stroke lead at 10-under.
He had a stroke of luck to save par on the 15th when his ball defied gravity to hold up on the steep bank of the green after his third shot.
And he birdied the last when he hit a wonderful approach to two feet to build a handy cushion before Sunday.
Woods, seeking a fifth Green Jacket in 12 years, a 14th major title and the first leg of the fabled Grand Slam of golf, knew that he had to claw some ground back on the leaders after two lackluster rounds.
A tap-in birdie at the par-five second was followed by a frustrating run of seven straight pars, but he produced an inspired back nine with birdies at the 10th, 13th and 17th where he was an inch short of an eagle-two.
'I put myself right back in the tournament, I'm right there,' was his assessment of his position.
'Today 68 was the highest score I could have made, I hit so many good shots that skirted the hole. It was not very far (from a 66 or 65), not very far at all.' 'I just had to stay as patient as possible and I did that all day today.'
'I've got a lot of work to do tomorrow as it is forecast to be blustery and cooler. Hopefully I can get within striking distance.'
To win, though, Woods will have to do what he has never done before - capture a major title when trailing entering the final round.
Casey, seeking to become just the second Englishman to win the Masters after three-times winner Nick Faldo, was briefly joint leader after an outward nine of 32, but three bogeys on the back nine stalled his progress.
'I am happy with that,' he said. 'I made a couple of mistakes but if you can get through this golf course without making a bogey then you are doing well. I am going to stay patient tomorrow and take the opportunities when I can.'
It was a deeply disappointing round, however, for world No.2 Phil Mickelson, who started the day tied for third and as the new bookies favourite for a third Masters title in four years.
The big Californian lefty birdied the second, but then shed stroke after stroke to come in with a 75 and at just two-under was almost certainly out of the running. -- AFP