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Jinx strikes Aussies down stretch

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Australians thought they had the Masters won in 1986 . . . until 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus shot a final-round 65 to overtake Greg Norman.

And they thought they had a green jacket to call their own in '87 . . . until Larry Mize holed an improbable chip to beat Norman on the second hole of a playoff.

And the Aussies were flat-out certain the jinx had ended in 1996 . . . until Norman disintegrated and blew a six-shot lead in the final round, surrendering the title to Nick Faldo.

When it comes to the Masters, Aussie golf fans await the abject worst. They expect the unfathomable disasters that befell Geoff Ogilvy, the reigning U.S. Open champion, down the stretch of Saturday's third round. They've come to anticipate the sudden woe that took the starch out of Stuart Appleby, who went from two shots ahead to momentarily behind in the 440 yards that comprise the 17th hole.

You can't help but feel for those Down Under, wish their misery would draw to an end. How can you root against them when they're relentless in their pursuit of the only major they've never won, when an aspiring pro like Ogilvy responds to Norman's '96 demise by vowing to put in more time on his game so he might one day conquer Augusta?

"Oh, yeah. I actually practiced harder that day -- I remember hitting balls that day, because it inspired me to not do that," Ogilvy said. "It's a weird way to get inspired, but I just got so fired up to practice that day because I thought if I ever get there, I don't want to do that, because that was hard to watch."

And what all those years of preparation got Ogilvy was a variation of Norman's famed unraveling.

Ogilvy had taken a leap up the leader board with a 3 on the par-5 13th, one of only three eagles made in the round. He was at even par for the day, 3-over for the tournament, figured to be sitting pretty entering today's final 18 until . . . he made 9 at the par-5 15th, topped the quad with three straight bogeys and plummeted to a tie for 26th.

Appleby knows a lesser degree of Ogilvy's pain. He arrived at the 17th hole having made 10 straight pars, a Herculean accomplishment given the severity of the conditions, 2007 destined to be remembered as the year they served up Masters on the rocks.

The temperatures were in the 40s most of the day, the wind chill hitting a low of 36: "The only other time I remember the weather like this is when I'm here playing for Thanksgiving and Christmas," said Charles Howell III, an Augusta native.

A morning watering took little sting out of greens quickened by two days of winds that on Saturday gusted to 23 mph, turning the whisper of the pines into a gravelly growl.

"It was like trying to land a golf ball on your driveway, but your driveway has mounds and they stick the pins near the mounds," groused Rich Beem, winner of the 2002 PGA Championship. "Sometimes you just have to giggle about it."

No one was exempt from Augusta's wrath on a day when the scoring averaged soared to 77.35, highest for a third round since 1956. Appleby hit an errant drive on 17 that led to, in his words, "a comedy of errors." A missed 3-foot putt was the final indignity of his triple-bogey 7.

There's still solace to be had for the Aussies. After all, Appleby heads into the final round with sole possession of the lead, a one-shot advantage. But ominous signs abound.

Norman's '87 Masters loss was to an Augusta native, and Vaughn Taylor, like Mize, hails from here. He's just two shots behind.

Norman's '86 defeat was administered by Nicklaus, the best player of his era. Appleby's partner in today's final group will be none other than Tiger Woods, winner of four Masters and 12 majors. Woods was primed to match the low round of the day, a 2-under 70 by Retief Goosen, until sideswiped by his second second bogey-bogey finish of the tournament.

Woods lamented his late limp, said he still liked where he was sitting, trailing as he was by only four shots. Little did he know those still on the course were headed his way, that being the first one in the clubhouse with a 54-hole total of plus-3 would put him in the final group, which has yielded the Masters winner every year since 1990.

Woods versus Appleby. Anyone for the Aussie?

"Look, Tiger has always got an advantage," Appleby said. "It's quite obvious. He has more experience than what's left of this field put together."

He was asked if he ever outdueled Tiger in, say, a friendly Nassau, in casual play. Could he draw strength from somewhere? Appleby got a kick out of that one.

"What would you like me to say, that I cleaned him up all the time? I'm great on the practice range? I can beat him? I can hit it past him? No, no and no. He won't even know I'm there."


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