Woods closes to within 2 shots

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SAN DIEGO (AP) – Another new name reached the top of the leaderboard Saturday at the Buick Invitational.

The next step is trying to hold off a familiar figure at Torrey Pines.

Australian rookie Andrew Buckle closed out his 4-under 68 with a 15-foot birdie putt that gave him a share of the lead with fellow rookie Brandt Snedeker. Two shots behind and casting an enormous presence on the leaderboard was Tiger Woods, who played bogey-free on the South Course for a 69 that left him in prime position to capture his seventh straight PGA Tour victory.

Buckle and Snedeker, who shot 74, have made a combined 20 starts on the PGA Tour. They will play in the final group with Kevin Sutherland, whose only PGA Tour victory came 20 miles up the road at La Costa five years ago.

When he finished his round, the 24-year-old Buckle was told he would be playing in the last group with Woods. That changed when Sutherland hit a hybrid onto the par-5 18th and two-putted for birdie and a 70 to finish one shot out of the lead.

“I’m not playing with Tiger?” Buckle said later. “Beautiful. I would have been pretty nervous.”

Snedeker, who met Woods for the first time Saturday morning on the putting green, felt the same way. Told that Sutherland’s birdie knocked Woods out of the final group, he smiled and said, “I need to send him a thank-you note.”

And he sure understands that the rookies will be happy to see him. “Your first time in the last group, it’s nicer to play with Kevin Sutherland than Tiger Woods,” he said.

Woods, the two-time defending champion at the Buick Invitational, also wanted to be in the final group. He almost got there, again hitting 5-wood from a fairway bunker just over the back of the green. He chipped to 5 feet, but missed the birdie putt.

Even so, he had few complaints finishing with 11 straight pars. Woods was in the bunker nine times in the third round, and saved par from the bunker on the 15th and 16th holes with 10-foot putts to stay in the game.

Buckle and the 26-year-old Snedeker were at 11-under 205, and a dozen players were within three shots of the lead.

“I’m getting better each round,” Woods said. “I’m right there in contention with a chance tomorrow.”

It has been almost seven months since Woods played a PGA Tour event without taking home the trophy, a streak that dates to his runner-up finish at the Western Open. He failed to win three times in European and Japanese tour events, but they are not recognized in PGA Tour record books.

His record at Torrey Pines is stout, too. Woods is a four-time champion of the Buick Invitational and has never finished out of the top 10. He also won the Junior World Championship three times at Torrey as a teenager.

Buckle, however, is undefeated on this municipal track along the Pacific bluffs. He won the Junior World in 1999 by two shots, and defended his title the next year with a 65-66 weekend to win by four.

Asked if he remembered who he beat, Buckle replied, “It wasn’t Tiger Woods, that’s for sure.”

“It was good fun to be in contention,” he said. “When you’re a kid, life is pretty easy. You’re just out there for a laugh, trying to play some golf.”

That’s how Snedeker has felt over three days, from his opening 61 on the North Course to his standing ovations while leading through 36 holes, even when his third round started to go South.

The pressure of the weekend didn’t bring immediate change to Snedeker, who missed the opening fairway and stuck his approach to 3 feet for birdie. And even after dropping his first shot at No. 4 with a poor chip, he looked happy as can be watching a hang glider zip along the cliffs and out over the Pacific Ocean.

He stretched his lead to four shots by holing a bunker shot at the fifth, and with a reachable par 5 up next, no one guessed the leaderboard would tighten up so quickly.

Snedeker’s wedge from 40 yards flew the green on the sixth and went into a bunker, leading to bogey. Then he took two shots to escape a greenside bunker on No. 7 and had to hole an 8-foot putt for bogey. His third straight bogey came from another bunker, and suddenly he was tied with Howell.

Buckle joined the race before long, hitting his approach into the 12th to about 6 feet for one of only five birdies in the third round, and picking up another birdie on the par-5 13th to take the lead.

Woods finished with 11 straight pars and few complaints. He missed a 10-foot birdie on the ninth and twice dropped to his knees when birdie putts tickled the edge of the cup on the back nine. But playing bogey-free on the back nine is cause for celebration.

“I had a couple of chances at birdies, but more important, I didn’t drop a shot,” Woods said.

And while he didn’t get in the last group, he was close enough. And everyone knew it.

Divots: Phil Mickelson used Callaway Golf’s new square-faced driver for the first time, testing it out in competition as he contemplates whether to use it at the Masters. He only hit five fairways in a round of 73. … Snedeker’s girlfriend and brother thought about coming out to San Diego for the weekend, but he told them to stay put. “I’m kind of superstitious,” said the rookie who has used the same quarter to mark his ball for the last two years. … Until this year, Buckle’s only three PGA Tour starts were at the British Open twice and the PGA Championship.

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