Lefty leads the pursuit

AUGUSTA, Ga. - A gigantic 50-foot-high Masters scoreboard by the 12th-hole tee loomed over the final pairing of the third round Saturday.

England’s Lee Westwood ignored it.

Instead, he listened for the roar of the crowd to see who was doing all the scoring.

What seemed like a walk-in-the-park round for Westwood was a topsy-turvy, hold-on-to-your-hat wild ride on the back nine holes of Augusta National Golf Club – thanks to a half-hour of heroics by Phil Mickelson.

Still, at the end of the day – and what an afternoon it was – Westwood’s 4-under-par 68 was still good enough to grab a slim margin heading into today’s anticipated final round.

At 12-under 204, Westwood leads Mickelson (67) by a stroke. K.J. Choi (70) and Tiger Woods (70) sit at 208 and will play in the same group for a fourth consecutive round.

And don’t forget about Seattle’s Fred Couples (68), who is back in contention and alone in fifth at 209.

Puyallup’s Ryan Moore shot a 1-over 73, and is tied for 29th at 218.

Today, it’s about the stars of golf – or so it seems looking at the short list of players who can win. Woods is a four-time Masters champion. Left-hander Mickelson has won it twice. Even Couples has a green jacket – won in ’92.

Absent from that list is Westwood, Europe’s top player for much of the past decade and possibly the best player in the world never to have won a major title.

Until now, he has never been the overnight leader at a major. He carries a lot with him – a country’s pride and a few of his own personal demons – into today’s finale.

“I think I’m ready,” Westwood quietly proclaimed.

Nick Faldo, who came from behind to win the 1996 Masters, was the last Brit to capture a major. And Wales’ Ian Woosnam was the last British golfer to lead going into the final round of a major – the 1991 Masters.

Westwood has certainly played the part this week. He held a five-shot lead over Mickelson and fellow countryman Ian Poulter coming off the 11th green.

Then the roars went up, mostly for the hard-charging Mickelson.

The San Diego native’s gamble on the par-5 13th paid off when his 7-iron approach from 195 yards landed close, and he made the 8-foot putt for eagle.

Then came the shot of the tournament: Mickelson holed a 141-yard approach shot with a pitching wedge from the fairway of the par-4 14th for an eagle 2, becoming the third golfer in tournament history to record back-to-back eagles, joining Dan Pohl (1982) and Dustin Johnson (2009).

And he wasn’t planning on stopping there.

“I didn’t think anybody had three (eagles), and I was trying to go for that,” Mickelson said.

He nearly pulled it off when his 87-yard wedge shot to the par-5 15th green came within a couple inches of going in.

“It was probably one of those great days in golf at a major championship,” Westwood said. “Great players do great things.”

In a span of 35 minutes, Westwood went from leading by five shots to trailing Mickelson by one stroke.

“Seemed quicker,” Westwood quipped.

But a late bogey by Mickelson, and a birdie at No. 15 by Westwood, led to a swap on the leaderboard.

Woods dropped as far back as 5-under on the front nine, but rallied with three birdies in a row – No. 13, No. 14 and No. 15 – and closed out his round with a tap-in birdie to stay close.

“After struggling just to fight back in the ballgame – the guys were running away from me there – to kind of claw my way back in there where I’m only four (shots) back right how, I’m in good shape,” Woods said.

Only in the press quarters, up on the podium, did Westwood finally look at a nearby scoreboard – when asked, was this as player-friendly as it was fan-friendly?

“It’s a very player-friendly leaderboard when you’re me and at the top of it,” Westwood joked.

“I think that’s what everybody wants to see. Everybody has missed Tiger on the golf course the last five … months, and he’s up there. Phil is obviously (up there). It’s a good leaderboard, I think.”

Todd Milles: 253-597-8442