Tiger Woods was on the verge of pulling away. Phil Mickelson was throwing away his chances with a bad drive and a bizarre penalty. Through it all, Jim Furyk kept calm Saturday in the NEC Invitational.
Reeling from consecutive bogeys that dropped him out of the lead, Furyk recovered with birdies on four of his last five holes for a four-under 66 and maintained his two-stroke lead over Woods at Firestone Country Club at Akron, Ohio.
"It turned into a very, very good day," Furyk said.
It set up him for the biggest challenge of his career--a chance to win a World Golf Championship by going head-to-head with the best player in the world playing his best golf of the summer.
Woods, in serious contention for the first time since he won the Memorial by seven strokes in late May, also had a 66. At stake today is a chance to become the first player to win three consecutive times at Firestone.
"Leading the golf tournament by two and teeing off with Tiger in the last group ... there's a lot worse positions I could be in," said Furyk, who was at 13-under 197. "I think most players would be excited to be put in that position and getting to test themselves."
Mickelson would have liked to have been part of the mix.
Instead, he teed off on No. 16 with a new ball that wasn't marked and sprayed it into the rough. He lifted the ball to make sure it was his, but didn't tell his playing partner, Furyk, what he was doing.
That's a one-stroke penalty. A bogey turned into a double bogey and forced Mickelson to sign for a 70, leaving him six strokes behind.
The final round will be played this morning because of thunderstorms expected to drench the course later in the day.
Another stroke back were Ernie Els (66) and Colin Montgomerie (66), who is still trying to win an official event on American soil for the first time.
Bernhard Langer is probably too far back after a 68 put him at 204, but a strong showing will almost certainly secure a spot for him on the European Ryder Cup team.
Bubba Dickerson and Robert Hamilton advanced to the championship of the U.S. Amateur, also earning spots in next year's Masters with their semifinal victories.
Dickerson, of Hilliard, Fla., edged Brian Nosler of Lake Oswego, Ore., 1-up, in a thrilling match tinged with bitter feelings after Dickerson failed to concede a putt of less than a foot on the 11th hole at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta . Dickerson, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Florida, holed a chip from the rough at 16 and made a 40-foot putt at 17, dramatic birdies that pushed him from 1-down to 1-up. He clinched the victory with a four-footer for par on the 18th.
Hamilton, 23, of Carmichael, Calif., defeated Colombia's Manuel Merizalde, 2 and 1, by winning four consecutive holes on the back side.
The 36-hole championship is today.
Walter Hall got Jim Thorpe's attention with a brilliant putting performance in the third round of the AT&T; Canada Senior Open.
"My hat's off to Walter," Thorpe said. "That's probably the greatest putting round I've seen since I've been on the senior tour. If he putts like that tomorrow, we can't beat him."
Hall, seeking his first victory after five runner-up finishes in five senior seasons, had only 26 putts in a six-under 65 on the historic Mississaugua Golf and Country Club course.
"I putted awfully well," Hall said. "I only had one little blemish--the three-putt on 10. Other than that, I either looked like I was going to make it or made it."
The former North Carolina appliance sales manager had a 14-under 199 total on the 95-year-old course to take a one-stroke lead over Thorpe, with Bruce Fleisher and Tom Kite three strokes back.
"I doesn't get any better than this," Hall said. "I had a day job for 20 years, so my wife and I are out here on vacation every day. All I want to do is play well. If I win, I win. If I don't, I don't."
Thorpe, who opened with a course-record 63 and led after the first two rounds, had 31 putts in a 68.
"Any time you have that many putts, you're not going to set the course on fire," Thorpe said. "I had a lot of 10-12-foot putts that I didn't capitalize on."
Fleisher, seeking his fourth victory of the year and 15th in two seasons on the tour, had a 67, and Kite birdied three of the final four holes for a 66.
Moira Dunn shot a four-under 68 to take a two-stroke lead after three rounds of the LPGA's Betsy King Classic at Kutztown, Pa.
Dunn, seeking her first tour win, had five birdies to move to 14-under 202 at the Berkleigh Country Club. She began the day with a one-shot edge.
The leaderboard remained tight with six golfers within three strokes of the lead.
Heather Daly-Donofrio, also seeking her first victory, had three of her four birdies in the last nine holes to shoot a 68 and sit at 12 under with Mhairi McKay.
Catriona Matthew fired a 67 and was at 11 under with Meg Mallon and Wendy Doolan.
Bryce Molder, a four-time All-American at Georgia Tech making his debut as a touring pro, birdied the last two holes to shoot a 67 and get to 14-under 202.
Charles Howell III, the 2000 champion from Oklahoma State, birdied his first two holes, then overcame a pair of bogeys on the back nine to shoot a 69 for a 13-under 203.