BETHESDA -- The last time Stuart Appleby was ahead in a PGA Tour event going into the final round, he had a one-stroke lead in this year's Masters and a living legend breathing down his blond-haired neck.
Appleby will have a slightly larger comfort zone going into today's final round of the inaugural AT&T; National at Congressional Country Club, but there is a major difference for the 36-year-old Australian.
Tiger Woods, who is doubling as tournament host, is barely visible in his rearview mirror.
With a 2-under-par 68 yesterday and a 54-hole total of 9-under 201, Appleby leads the second-round co-leader, K.J. Choi of South Korea, by two strokes. Steve Stricker is three behind, and former Masters champion Mike Weir of Canada is four back.
Meanwhile, Woods lost ground to Appleby when a well-played, but distinctly unlucky round of 1-under 69 left the world's No. 1-ranked player at 2-under 208.
Appleby noted the contrast between the atmosphere here and at Augusta National back in April.
"It's a different week, it's a different golf course, a different scenario; different things are going to happen," said Appleby, who double-bogeyed the first hole in the final round of the Masters, shot 3-over 75 and finished four back of winner Zach Johnson. "For me, I hope it's a different result, too."
Today, Appleby will be paired with Choi, a player with whom he shares the same swing coach in Australian Steve Bann, and will be playing against Congressional, not Woods. Choi, whose victory in the Memorial Tournament hosted by Jack Nicklaus was his fifth tour victory, shot even-par 70 yesterday.
"The biggest opponent is the golf course," said Appleby, who has won eight PGA Tour events in a 12-year career, including the Kemper Open at nearby Avenel in 1998. "I'm not worried about Tiger. He's not worried about what I'm going to shoot. He's just going to be going deep as much as he can."
Woods knows he could have been a lot closer had he made a few more putts for birdie - he had several stop inches short, lip out or slide past the edge - or not made his only bogey, on the par-4 18th hole after hitting his drive far left of the fairway.
"It's frustrating, it really is," Woods said about narrowly missing the birdie putts. "When you hit good putts and you think they're looking dead center, they kind of wander left or right, it's frustrating. But that's the way it goes sometimes. You've got to be patient. I'm still in the ballgame."
Woods wasn't the only one to struggle on greens that have become increasingly bumpy as the tournament has progressed and the temperatures have climbed into the 90s.
"[Friday] morning, they were pure," Stricker said. "For nine holes, we didn't have anybody in front of us. But today they were a little suspect. They were bouncy and they were marked up, and that's just the way these surfaces get. It makes it more important to hit the green and give yourself a chance."
Stricker had eight putts for birdie from within 16 feet on the back nine, but made just two of them in a round of 3-under 67.
"It's kind of like that U.S. Open mentality here - pars are good," Stricker said.
With an announced crowd of 37,614 yesterday and a three-day figure over 102,000, the tournament has the feel of a major championship. Woods, as expected, draws the largest crowds, a fact that wasn't lost on those not playing with him, as well as one who did.
"To be part of his circus, and that's kind of what it's like, when you get thrown into his group, it's very distracting and very difficult to play with," Stricker said. "He's very easy to play with, but it's the whole hoopla, so it's always good to be a few holes away."
Kevin Stadler, a fourth-year pro and the son of longtime PGA Tour player Craig Stadler, started and finished the day even with Woods while paired with him. Stadler got the biggest cheers of the day when he made a hole-in-one on the 187-yard, par-3 13th hole.
"That was the most thoroughly enjoyable round I've had in who knows how long," said Stadler, 27, who will get to play again with Woods today. "I, for a change, didn't get in my own way and was just having fun and just taking it all in. It was really cool."
If Woods doesn't win, he certainly wouldn't mind presenting the trophy to Appleby. The two are neighbors, friends and practice partners back home in Florida in the exclusive Isleworth community outside Orlando.
"Stuey is a great guy," Woods said. "He's always been fantastic to me and my family. I think that the hard work I've seen and all the hard work he puts in back home, it's starting to pay off."
Asked whether a victory would gain him more respect at home, Appleby joked, "I would get no more respect because I struggle as it is with Tiger."
Turning a bit more serious, Appleby said: "I'm not concerned who honors an event or who titles an event, because winning once you've won or have a drought, it feels great. Not winning feels a little shallow and empty.
"If I can enjoy all that good feelings in winning, and this being Tiger's inaugural event, I'm sure I'll let him know."
For fourth-round updates, go to baltimoresun.com/golf
If you go
Today: Play begins at 8 a.m.
Daily pass: $25
Daily youth ticket: Ages 13-17, $10 (available at gate only); ages 12 and younger are admitted free at gate when accompanied by a ticket-holding adult (limit two children per adult).
Parking: Included with the price of admission.