SAN DIEGO -- A pair of PGA Tour rookies wound up atop the leaderboard Saturday at the Buick Invitational, and both of them realize they will have to conquer their nerves in the final group as they try to win for the first time.
Imagine that final threesome being filled out by Tiger Woods.
"Somebody told me he's had 41 more wins than I've had starts on this tour," Snedeker said. "I think he's got me beat in the experience aspect. I know he's going to be there down the stretch. It's just a matter of keeping my wits about me."
Going after his seventh consecutive PGA Tour victory and third straight title at Torrey Pines, Woods hit into nine bunkers and closed with 11 straight pars for a hard-earned 69 to get within two shots of the lead. He trailed the two rookies and Kevin Sutherland, whose only victory came five years ago 20 miles up the road at La Costa.
Snedeker stumbled with three straight bogeys and then scrambled for a 2-over 74. Buckle surged into a share of the lead with seven birdies on his way to a 68. They were at 11-under 205 and had a one-shot lead over Sutherland, who made birdie on the 18th hole and probably spared them some jitters.
When Buckle finished his round with a 15-foot birdie, the 24-year-old Australian was told he would be in the final group with Woods. Only later was he informed that Sutherland would join them because of his two-putt birdie on the par-5 18th for a 70.
Buckle didn't exactly disguise the disappointment.
"I'm not playing with Tiger?" he said. "Beautiful."
Snedeker, who has stayed atop the leaderboard since his opening 61 on the easier North Course, also was delighted when told that Sutherland's birdie kept Woods out of the final group. The 26-year-old from Tennessee met Woods for the first time Saturday morning on the putting green.
"I would love to play in the last group with Tiger," Snedeker said. "But as a rookie, I'm glad the way it worked out."
Sutherland, 42, was only too glad to accommodate them.
This is 317th start on the PGA Tour, and his only victory was the Accenture Match Play Championship five years ago. Sutherland is as friendly as they come, and not quite as intimidating as the world's No. 1 player. And he was the first to acknowledge that.
"There's a huge difference," he said. "Your first time in the last group, it's nicer to play with Kevin Sutherland than Tiger Woods."
There's a reason Woods is the heavy favorite Sunday.
He has never finished out of the top 10 at the Buick Invitational, a tournament he already has won four times. And the last time Woods played a PGA Tour event without taking home the trophy was the Western Open nearly seven months ago.
"I'm getting better each round," Woods said. "I'm right there in contention with a chance tomorrow."
But it's not a matter of showing up on the first tee.
A dozen players were within three shots of the leaders, making the final round difficult to predict on a punishing course like the South at Torrey Pines, host of the U.S. Open next year.
And while it seems as though Woods owns Torrey Pines, the undefeated record belongs to Buckle. He won the Junior World Championship in 1999 by two shots, then defended his title the next year with a 65-66 weekend to win by four. Buckle has not returned to Torrey Pines until this year.
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. 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, and he doesn't want that to change.
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 on the hole 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.
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.