At the end of a long and emotional Saturday, six of the world's top seven players had at least a chance to win the green jacket that goes to the champion of the year's first major tournament.
They were led by the current champions of the Masters and U.S. Open --- Tiger Woods and Retief Goosen. They shared the 54-hole lead at 11-under 205, two shots in front of 2000 Masters winner Vijay Singh and four shots in front of Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Ernie Els.
Woods is ranked No. 1 in the world, Mickelson No. 2, Els No. 3, Goosen No. 4, Garcia No. 5 and Singh No. 7. The only man missing among the top seven was David Duval, who after finishing second, sixth, third and second in the last four Masters missed the cut this year.
For some of the leaders, the work day began at 9 a.m., when the rain-delayed second round resumed. And near the end of that second round, 72-year-old Arnold Palmer walked up the hill leading to the 18th green for the final time as a contestant in the Masters.
Although the grass alongside the fairway had been turned into a sea of mud by two days of on-and-off rain, thousands of the Palmer legions lined up as many as six deep along the more than a quarter of a mile from tee to green.
"I don't think I have ever seen anything quite like that," Palmer said. "It was unbelievable."
After recording an 85 in his last round at the Augusta National, Palmer got in his airplane and flew home to Orlando.
"I need to unwind," he said. "I think I will watch the Masters on television."
What Palmer will see Sunday should be yet another classic finish at a tournament that makes a habit of producing them.
Woods, seeking the seventh major title at age 26, completed a second-round 69 early Saturday and then recorded a 66 in the third round. Throughout the day he scrambled for pars and then surged toward the lead with birdie putts of eight feet at both the 10th and 11th holes.
He rolled in a 10-footer at the 18th hole for his seventh birdie of the round to close within one of Goosen and Woods wound up tied for the lead when Goosen drove into the trees at the 18th and made a bogey for a round of 69.
Singh, who shot 30 on the back nine of his 65 on Friday, had to settle for a 72 Saturday, suffering bogeys on two of the last five holes.
Mickelson shot a bogey-free 68, Garcia had a 70 and Els a 72. In finishing off his second round early Saturday, Els enjoyed a birdie, birdie, eagle, birdie streak beginning at the 13th to shoot a 67.
"You look at the quality of the leaderboard," Mickelson said. "There is Tiger and Vijay and Retief. They are not going to come back. I am going to have to go get them.
"I hoped to shoot a really low round to have a chance. I shot 68. What that does is give me a chance to win with a really low round tomorrow."
For Woods, it was a day to remember. He awoke at 4:30 a.m. in order to be ready to finish off his second round.
"We were supposed to be in position at 7:45," he said. "Then they moved it back to 8:15 and then 8:30 and finally 9:00. I stayed out on the range the whole time. I didn't want to have to warm up again.
"So I was out there a long time. Then, after the morning session, I hung out in the locker room and had a nice chat with Ollie (Olazabal). We told stories and had a good time."
Woods then went back to work and produced the kind of round that has made him the game's best player.
"I made my share of putts," Woods said. "I really made my share of par putts. I've always said that it's a better feeling making a big par putt than it is making a birdie.
"You have to make those par putts in order to keep the momentum in the round going and I seem to have been successful at it so far."
The soft-spoken Goosen, who defeated Mark Brooks in a playoff to win the U.S. Open last summer, is coming off a PGA Tour victory last week in Atlanta.
"I enjoy playing with Tiger," Goosen said. "He's a nice guy. I'm just going to go out and focus on my own game and see what happens.
"I know I can play under this kind of pressure. But it will be tough. Any final round in a major is difficult. It will be difficult for Tiger as well. He has to go out and do his thing and there will be others with a chance.
"It will be an exciting day tomorrow."
The third round went off uninterrupted, although a brief shower struck the course as the final groups were completing play.
Concerned about the Sunday forecast, which called for a chance of thunderstorms, tournament officials moved Sunday's final tee time forward to 2:10 p.m.
Before the world's leading players took center stage in the afternoon, the early hours of the day belonged to Palmer.
In typical fashion, Palmer chose to hit a driver from the 18th fairway, a shot that faded sharply and managed to sail through the branches of a pine tree without hitting anything.
Palmer still double bogeyed the hole, leaving him with an 85 for the day and a two-round score of 30-over 174.
There remained the possibility that Palmer made his last competitive appearance anywhere.
He said earlier in the week that he hoped to play later this year in the U.S. Senior Open and Senior PGA Championship.
"But if my game is not any better than than it is now, I won't play," Palmer said Saturday. "And I mean that. But I'm like anybody else. I'm going to work on my game and see if I can get better. I hit a couple of shots out there today that encouraged me. So we will see."
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