AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The burning question left last night after yesterday's third round at Augusta National was not whether Bernhard Langer was going to win the 57th Masters. It was this: Who in the name of Bobby Jones was going to catch him?
Even if he came down with another case of the yips, even if he did what Curtis Strange did here seven years ago that allowed Langer to win his first green jacket, there were few names near the top of the leader board that raised much fear. Or interest for that matter.
On a day when swirling winds reduced most of the tournament's former champions and legitimate contenders to flailing hackers, Langer's 3-under-par 69 gave him a 54-hole total of 9-under 207 and a four-shot lead over Dan Forsman and Chip Beck.
Four others -- third-round leader Jeff Maggert, veteran Lanny Wadkins, Australian Steve Elkington and left-hander Russ Cochran -- are five shots behind at 4-under 212. Former $l champions Fuzzy Zoeller and Ray Floyd, as well as pre-tournament favorite Greg Norman and Brad Faxon are seven shots back.
Is it over?
"There is always pressure in the Masters, whether you have the lead or you're two shots behind," said Langer, who is looking to become the fifth foreign player in the last six years to win here. "You always want to do well, and you always want to have a chance to win."
The 35-year-old German hasn't won a tournament in the United States since winning the Masters and the Heritage Classic in successive weeks seven years ago. But this time he won't be the beneficiary of someone else's collapse; he could only be the victim of his own.
In 1985, Langer won the Masters after Strange blew a three-shot lead with six holes to play. Yesterday, Langer carved his own lead when Maggert and several accomplished players, most notably Floyd, faded under a combination of the pressure, the often confusing winds and difficult pin placements.
"They had pins in places I can't remember them ever having before," said Floyd, a 29-year veteran and the 1976 champion, who faded back to 3-under after a 3-over-par 75. "With the [20 mph] winds, it made things almost impossible. I kind of shot myself out of the tournament."
Said 1979 champion Zoeller, who is also at 3-under after a 1-under 71, "The crosswinds had the guys guessing a little bit. It was kind of neat."
Consider some of the roller-coaster rounds played yesterday: Cochran started at 5-under, got to 8-under at the turn before giving back four shots on the back nine. Forsman had six birdies, but he also had three bogeys and two double-bogeys in a wild, 1-over-par 73.
The winds wreaked havoc not only with the shots being played, but the decisions leading up to those shots. Players changed clubs more often than Payne Stewart changes clothes. But in the midst of this confusion came the steady calm of Langer, who remained unflappable while nearly everyone around him was losing, uh, their grip.
Twice he birdied from off the green: an 18-foot putt from the back fringe at No. 2, and a sensational 60-foot chip-in from six yards off the green at No. 11 -- a shot that reminded many, Langer included, of Larry Mize's 140-foot chip-in on the same hole to win the 1987 Masters in sudden death.
The only blips in Langer's round came when he bogeyed No. 13 to fall back to 9-under and, after a birdie at 14 pushed him back to 10, a bogey on the final round tightened things up just a bit.
Langer didn't understate the magnitude of his round.
"I would rank it in the top five," said Langer, whose lead is the largest going into the final round since Seve Ballesteros led by seven shots in 1980 and won by four. "The course played very tough. It played very different from the first two days, and that always makes it difficult for the players."
Particularly for Maggert, whose misery began when he four-putted from 70 feet for bogey on the par-5 second hole. But after getting back to where he started at 7-under with a birdie at No. 7, Maggert fell apart. He double-bogeyed the par-3 12th, bogeyed the par-5 13th and bogeyed the par-4 17th before regaining some pride with a birdie at No. 18.
"I'm not going to sulk," said Maggert. "Bernard's only 9-under. If I can shoot 4- or 5-under, I'm going to put it on the board and let the guys look at it."
But others seemed to concede this Masters and its $306,000 first prize to Langer. Or else they were only trying to soften him up and play a little post-round gamesmanship. Forsman and Beck did sound convincing in their respect for Langer.
"He's got all the experience," said Forsman, who admitted that his lack of experience -- this is his third Masters -- and never having made the cut caught up with him yesterday. "He's playing extremely well. He could be tough to beat."
Said Beck, "I think it's definitely a feather in his cap. He's a sensational, gifted player. That's what we anticipate at The Masters golf tournaments, that you're going to see a guy like Langer on top of the leader board. I think it is an advantage."
But Langer is not counting his green jackets before they are fitted. He knows what happened to Strange, and others who saw their dreams turn to dust around Amen Corner on Sunday. Still, he would rather be in the position he is in today than a few shots off the lead.
"I believe it's easier," said Langer. "In 1985, I had to go for everything after Curtis got off to such a good start. When you have to go for everything there's more chance you can miss the green."
% And the green jacket.
$ The leader . . . Bernhard Langer 68-70-69207
. . and selected followers Chip Beck 72-67-72211
Dan Forsman 69-69-73211
Lanny Wadkins 69-72-71212
Steve Elkington 71-70-71212
Russ Cochran 70-69-73212
Jeff Maggert 70-67-75212
Fuzzy Zoeller 75-67-71213
Greg Norman 74-68-71213
Brad Faxon 71-70-72213
Raymond Floyd 68-71-74213
John Daly 70-71-73214
Larry Mize 67-74-74215
Fred Couples 72-70-74216
Jack Nicklaus 67-75-76218
Odds and ends after The Masters' third round:
Best score: 69, by Bernhard Langer and Craig Stadler.
Worst score: 84, by John Huston.
Best comeback: Nolan Henke went from 76 the first day to 69-71 the next two days.
Worst fade: Huston went from 68 the first day to 74-84 the next two days.