AUGUSTA, Ga. -- With each birdie, Tiger Woods moved closer to the lead in the 66th Masters. With each stroke, Woods moved up the leader board during yesterday's third round, and Augusta National Golf Club seemed to become less of a muddy mess and more of the grand stage it has been for the world's best player.
The final birdie, a 12-footer on the now-treacherous par-4 18th hole, was accentuated by Woods pointing at the ball as it disappeared into the cup and then tightly pumping his left fist. The final birdie, the seventh for Woods in a round of 6-under-par 66, put Woods within one shot of the leader, Retief Goosen of South Africa.
When Goosen, the reigning U.S. Open champion, later drove his tee shot on the 18th into the trees and left a 30-foot par putt inches short, it put Woods in a very familiar place. At 11-under 205, Woods and Goosen are tied for the lead going into today's final round that many believe is a mere formality for a player considered the ultimate front-runner.
Woods, 26, has never lost a major after leading or being tied for the lead after 54 holes. His six previous major championships were as easy as the 12-stroke win here in 1997, the all-time major record 15-shot win in the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and as difficult as his three-hole playoff victory later that summer in the PGA Championship.
"I feel very comfortable. I've been there before," said Woods, who is looking to win his third Masters in the past six years and become the first player since Nick Faldo in 1989 and '90 to repeat as champion. "Steve [Williams, his caddie] and I really wanted to be in that final group."
Conversely, Goosen has done this only once in a major championship. That was in last year's U.S. Open at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla., when he shared a one-stroke lead going into the final round and survived a disastrous three-putt on the 72nd hole of regulation to get into a playoff, where he beat Mark Brooks.
Goosen, 33, is keenly aware that there is no comparison between his opponents.
"I'm going to go out there and try to focus on my own game," said Goosen, who shot a 3-under 69 in yesterday's third round, which began after the conclusion of the rain-delayed second round early in the morning. "I'm going to try to ignore that I'm playing with him. ... Obviously, it's going to be difficult to totally block out everything."
Since the U.S. Open, Goosen has been the hottest player in the world and has skyrocketed to No. 4 in the world rankings. He has won five tournaments since, three on the European PGA Tour, one on the South African Tour and last week's BellSouth Classic outside Atlanta. All that success should help Goosen today.
"I know that I can play now under this sort of pressure," Goosen said. "It's going to be tough, like I said. You know any final round in a major is difficult. I mean it's going to be difficult for Tiger as well. He's got to go out there and do his thing, and there's a few other players who have a chance."
On a leader board that resembles the current world rankings, Woods and Goosen lead 2000 Masters champion Vijay Singh by two shots. Three players also among the top seven in the world -- Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia of Spain and two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els of South Africa -- are four shots behind. Two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain is five shots back.
"I'm not going to worry about them [Woods and Goosen] tomorrow," said Singh, who came into the third round one shot ahead of Goosen but bogeyed two of the last four holes to finish with a even-par 72. "I'm going to play my game, and hopefully not have mud on my ball. I need to putt a little better."
It was Woods' putting yesterday that brought him from the periphery into contention and, ultimately, into a share of the lead. After getting up at 4:30 a.m., and waiting for the rain to stop and the second round to finally resume at 9, Woods made a couple of putts to save par.
"I've made my share of putts, but I think I've made my share of par putts," said Woods, who was at 3-under through 10 holes of the second round and finished it at 5-under. "I've always said that it's a better feeling making a big par putt than it is making a birdie. This morning, I made a lot of par putts."
In the afternoon, Woods made a lot of birdies. Except for his lone bogey on the par-3 fourth hole that dropped him back to 5-under, Woods resembled the player who lapped the field here five years ago as well as during his historic run of four straight majors starting with the 2000 U.S. Open and ending with his two-shot win here last year.
Woods wasn't thinking about making history yesterday.
"My goal going out this afternoon was to get to double digits [under par]," said Woods, who accomplished that with a birdie on the par-5 15th. "Just anywhere in double digits was what I wanted to happen. Whether that was going to put me in the lead or not, I felt like I was going to be within striking distance."
He is more than within striking distance.
Woods is in a place where he has been many times before -- he is 22-2 on the PGA Tour after being in the lead or tied for it after 54 holes -- and Goosen is aware of that, too.
"Playing with Tiger, who has won around here twice and done so well in the past, you know he knows the course so well, and I haven't really done well here in the past," said Goosen, who missed the cut here twice and tied for 40th two years ago. "I'm just going to try to stick to my game plan and see if I can make a few more putts."
While he played with Woods during the first two rounds in last year's PGA Championship and beat him by a stroke, Goosen knows today will be much different. They might be in the same state, but not the same state of mind.
"He is going to be the guy to beat, but I'm going to play the course the way I've been playing it," said Goosen, the only player this week with three straight rounds in the 60s. "I can't hit it the way Tiger hits it. I'm going to be 30 yards behind him tomorrow. I'm going to have to really try to get in there close and put pressure on him."
The leaders ...
Tiger Woods 70-69-66-205 Retief Goosen 69-67-69-205
... and selected followers Vijay Singh 70-65-72-207 Ernie Els 70-67-72-209 Sergio Garcia 68-71-70-209 Phil Mickelson 69-72-68-209 J.M. Olazabal 70-69-71-210 Thomas Bjorn 74-67-70-211 P. Harrington 69-70-72-211 Angel Cabrera 68-71-73-212 Chris DiMarco 70-71-72-213 Mike Weir 72-71-71-214 Nick Faldo 75-67-73-215 Adam Scott 71-72-72-215 Brad Faxon 71-75-69-215 Davis Love III 67-75-74-216 Stewart Cink 74-70-72-216 Jeff Sluman 73-72-71-216 John Daly 74-73-70-217 C. Howell III 74-73-71-218