AUGUSTA, Ga. — When the focus finally shifted to golf and away from the rule book, the third round of the 77th Masters resembled a clean canvas, waiting for someone to make a colorful splash.
With 26 players separated by just five shots and calm conditions begging for birdies, extra drama was flat out expected Saturday at Augusta National Golf Club, which saw its share not long after the sun came up.
Before play even began, Tiger Woods was slapped with a two-stroke penalty from a Friday rules violation. He was given a reprieve and not disqualified, which many assumed he would happen since he had signed an incorrect second-round scorecard.
CBS couldn’t have liked that possibility. But with Woods still in the field, the third round had the potential to be special, in a week that’s already seen its share of historic moments. Chasing 36-hole leader Jason Day was a pack that included six Masters champions, two other major winners, and six more who were ranked among the world’s top 10 players.
That kind of leaderboard also meant that chances were good we’d be overstuffed with intrigue at the end of the day, and that’s exactly what we had.
After matching 3-under-par 69s, Angel Cabrera and Brandt Snedeker shared the third-round lead at 7 under par. They were one shot clear of Adam Scott, who also shot 69, with Marc Leishman (72) and Jason Day (73) tied for fourth at 5 under. Day bogeyed his last two holes to fall out of a share of the lead.
Among the top six players on the big board, only Cabrera owns a major championship. He has just two PGA Tour wins, but both came in majors, at the 2007 US Open and 2009 Masters.
Snedeker came close here in 2008, tying for third, which left him in tears. He might cry Sunday night, but he’s not planning on being disappointed again.
“I’ve spent 32 years of my life getting ready for tomorrow. It’s all been a learning process, and I am completely, 100 percent sure that I’m ready to handle no matter what happens. I’m going to be disappointed if I don’t win, period.
“I’m not here to get a good finish. I’m not here to finish top five. I’m here to win and that’s all I’m going to be focused on tomorrow.”
No shortage of confidence, obviously, from last year’s PGA Tour points champion. Snedeker played bogey-free golf on Saturday; in fact, you’d have to go back to the ninth hole of Friday’s second round to find his last dropped shot. He’s comfortable here, having also finished tied for 15th and tied for 19th the last two years.
There was no golfer on a better streak earlier this season than Snedeker, who had two seconds (losing to Woods and Phil Mickelson) and a third over his first four starts, then punctuated the run with a win at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, his fifth on the PGA Tour. But he took five weeks off after that with a rib injury, then missed the cut in two tournaments since his return.
If someone who is second on both the money and points list, and ranked fifth in the world, could come into the year’s first major without much hype, it was Snedeker.
“It’s been two seasons, I guess, is the best way to put it. The first part of the season, I was healthy, playing great, nothing was wrong. Then I got hurt and had to start pretty much from scratch again,” said Snedeker, who opened with pars on his first 12 holes before making birdies at Nos. 13, 15, and 16. “Getting that feeling back, the momentum back, like I did early in the year, I feel like my golf swing is getting back to the way it was. My short game is really good. I’m excited. This is what I’ve worked my whole life for.”
Snedeker figures to be the heavy crowd favorite in the final pairing with Cabrera, who birdied the 18th hole to reserve his spot in the group. The 43-year-old Argentine hasn’t done much since beating Kenny Perry in a playoff at the 2009 Masters; he’s dropped to No. 269 in the world rankings, but always gets a lift coming back to Augusta.
“In 2009 I was nervous, anxious. But now I’m very comfortable,” Cabrera said. “When you’ve played so many times [in] this tournament, you know where you can miss a shot. I know what I’ve got to do tomorrow to be able to get the win.”
Scott is looking for major redemption, after squandering a four-shot lead with four holes to play at last year’s British Open. He’s put himself right back in position.
Day was in control until the final two holes, both of which he three-putted. The other player in the final pairing limped home, as well. Fred Couples bogeyed the 14th and 15th, then took a triple bogey at No. 17. He shot 77, and is at even par, his dreams of winning a second Masters at 53 likely dashed.
Matt Kuchar (69, three shots back) and Woods (70, four back) are also in the mix, setting the stage for what should be a memorable final round, as is often the case at the Masters.
One day to go. Soon, the canvas will be complete.
Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.