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Within striking distance

The 69th Masters Tournament should be subtitled, "From Here to Eternity." Because that's how long, it seems, it has taken to play two and a half rounds.

We're about to enjoy that magical time, Sunday at the Masters, and those players near the lead still have the better part of 27 holes to play. If the Masters doesn't really begin until the back nine on Sunday, as conventional wisdom suggests, then this finish is going to be doubly good because leader Chris DiMarco, pursuers Tiger Woods and Thomas Bjorn, and the rest are going to play the back nine twice on Sunday.

When darkness halted play Saturday night, and prevented completion of the third round, the Masters resembled a three-man race. DiMarco made three birdies on the front nine and was at 13 under, leading by four over Woods, who scorched the front nine for 31 and had 12 birdies on the 27 holes he played Saturday. Bjorn, playing in the final pairing with DiMarco, was five back. However, because a round and a half still remain, even players 10 or 12 shots behind are still in it if they post a low back-nine score when they finish up Sunday morning.

The obvious question is, who will win? Here's how I handicap Sunday's unusual finish:

No disrespect to DiMarco, whose alley fighting style I like, but this eight-time major champion is the man to beat even though he's spotting DiMarco four shots. His performance Saturday was the Tiger of old, not an old Tiger. New swing or not, Woods played stylish, near flawless golf and it makes you look back on his opening round as a positive -- the guy putted off two greens, including once into a water hazard, knocked a wedge off a flagstick and into a bunker for bogey, and played a vicious carom shot off a tree on the eighth hole ... and still shot only 74.

Every bad bounce you can think of was thrown at him and he stayed in the mix, wiping all his troubles out with a second-round 66, then that sizzling 31 that had everyone, including his competitors, talking.

"That was an impressive front nine, wasn't it?" Bjorn said. "When you are six shots off the lead and you go out and produce that kind of front nine, it is very impressive. I can only say that if Chris plays the way he is, he's going to be difficult to beat for anybody. Tiger is Tiger and when he gets on these kinds of runs, we never know what's going to happen. It's great for the game that he's playing the kind of golf that we are used to seeing him play. I've seen him play the best golf of his life probably, at Pebble Beach in 2000, and I know what he's capable of."

When looking ahead to the final round of any tournament, I always perform a simple exercise: erase the leader, no matter who it is or no matter how big their lead is, and what have you got? You'd be amazed how often the leader fades, falls back or melts down in the last round.

For the sake of argument, let's throw out DiMarco. Woods then, has a one-shot lead over Bjorn and a five-shot lead over Mark Hensby, Rod Pampling and Vijay Singh. A posse of players at 3 under par, six behind Tiger, includes former Masters champs Mike Weir and Phil Mickelson. Know anybody who'd bet against Tiger in that position? So all he's got to do is make up four shots on DiMarco over 27 holes.

One other thing about karma: Things are now falling Tiger's way. He arrived in the 10th fairway to find a big clump of mud on the ball just in time to hear the horn sound, indicating the end of play Saturday night. He had the option of finishing the hole or marking his spot and picking up his ball.

"That was a no-brainer," Woods said. "That was a great break."

Woods marked his ball and will replace it, cleaned, Sunday morning. The horn's timing may have saved him a shot. And it's possible he could break the course record of 63 if he snags an eagle at 13 or 15 Sunday.

Your winner, unless he reverts to the Tiger we've seen spraying drives way off-line in the last year, is Woods. In NASCAR terms, he's the fastest car on the track.

Actually, having Woods chase him could be the best thing for DiMarco. A big lead is an awkward position for most tour players and one they're not often in. The feeling is, all you can do is mess it up. With Woods charging after him like, well, Woods, DiMarco won't have to worry about playing conservative golf and aiming for the middle of greens. He can't go into a prevent defense which, as NFL fans know only too well, usually only prevents winning. Asked if he felt he needed to keep attacking Sunday, DiMarco said: "Well, yeah, especially with Tiger behind me."

Being pushed may take the pressure off DiMarco, because he'll have to keep trying to make birdies. DiMarco is a seasoned veteran but not a big winner. He's got three wins -- the 2000 SEI Pennsylvania Classic, 2001 Buick Challenge and 2002 Phoenix Open. Not exactly the Grand Slam of golf, is it? His 2004 was a vital year in his career, though. He played in the final pairing Sunday at the Masters with Phil Mickelson, shot 76 and tied for sixth. In 2001, DiMarco was the Masters leader after each of the first two rounds, just like this year. And last year, he got into the PGA Championship playoff, won by Vijay Singh, and came up big -- well, as big as anybody on the team -- in the Ryder Cup. He may have learned something about winning the big one playing with Mickelson a year ago.

"I watched how it was done," he said. "If anybody had the best seat in the house, it was me. Do you know what Phil did? He had fun. Going out and trying to hold onto a lead isn't going to do it. Go out and step on it. That's what Ernie did last year and that's why he almost won. That's why Phil won on the back nine. That's what you have to do around here. You look back in the '80s and '90s, the guys who won, they won on the back nine."

I don't see DiMarco folding this time. I just see Woods outplaying him.

This guy is tough, kind of like DiMarco. He'd only posted one round in the 60s in 14 previous rounds at Augusta before he rode a pair of eagles to a second-round 67. He took a self-imposed break at one point in his career to get rid of "demons," and is best-known for taking three shots out of a greenside bunker on the 70th hole and handing the 2003 British Open to American unknown Ben Curtis.

Bjorn has seven wins in Europe, but a missed 18-inch par putt Saturday on the seventh hole could be a signal that he's going to struggle with Augusta National's treacherous greens when the pressure turns up a notch in the final round.

The No. 1 player in the world is obviously a threat, even though at 4 under par, he is nine shots back. More important he's five behind Tiger. Singh needs to shoot a 32 or 33 on the back nine Sunday morning to give himself a realistic chance to make a run.

Of all the contenders Saturday, perhaps not coincidentally, Singh and Phil Mickelson were the only ones who weren't at least two under for the round. Singh was one under through 10, Mickelson was one under through 11. The two had a locker-room disagreement about the spikes on Mickelson's shoes, which Singh believed were abnormally marking up the greens. The embarrassing flap may have put both players on the defensive.

This is a field entry of two Aussies playing in their first Masters. They're both accomplished and underrated players, and at the moment, nine shots behind DiMarco. No Aussie has ever won the Masters. While their play thus far has been stellar, it's unlikely you'll see either of them in a green jacket before Adam Scott, Stuart Appleby or Craig Parry.

The defending champ can go deep on the back. He shot 31 last year when he won. The thing is, he needs to do it again Sunday morning, and possibly again Sunday afternoon.

Ten shots back with 27 holes isn't insurmountable. Lefty has finished seventh or better in eight of the last 10 Masters. He'll be in the top seven again this time, but it's going to be tough for him to get close enough to the lead unless the leaders meet with disasters ... which has been known to happen on the back nine.

Here's your dark horse. He's not a long hitter and his 2003 Masters win, while universally applauded, was universally surprising. His game just didn't fit the Masters champions' regular profile -- long bomber, good putter.

He's 10 shots back but his big problem is, he's running out of holes. He is already through 15 holes in the third round, which means he's already played the birdie holes, the 13th and 15th. Quite simply, he's too far back.

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