Reporting from Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Lee Westwood's lead at the Players Championship was teetering on the drain. Literally.
Carrying a one-shot lead to Saturday's final hole, the English pro sent a wayward drive screaming toward the gallery at TPC Sawgrass — the ball continuing to roll until it dribbled onto the grill atop a large storm drain.
He received a free drop from there, but that didn't alter the wooded mass that stood between Westwood and the 18th green.
Somehow, Westwood found a path through the trees, ripping a six-iron that ran all the way near the back of the green. A two-putt par completed a two-under-par 70 that kept him in sole custody of the lead with one round to play.
"It was just about perfect," said a quietly satisfied Westwood, who still must contend with a tightly bunched pack to win golf's richest tournament.
Robert Allenby's 67 moved him within one of Westwood's total of 14-under 202. Another shot back were U.S. Open titleholder Lucas Glover (69), Ben Crane (68) and Sawgrass rookie Francesco Molinari (71).
Nine golfers in all enter the final round within four strokes of Westwood. And that doesn't include Masters champion Phil Mickelson, five back after Saturday's 66 and with a chance to dethrone Tiger Woods atop the world rankings.
"I just hope that it'll be enough," Mickelson said before Saturday's final groups teed off, "that I'll be within striking distance."
Mickelson can usurp the No. 1 ranking if he wins The Players and Woods finishes out of the top five. Woods posted his second consecutive 71 on Saturday, leaving him tied for 45th after bogeys at Nos. 17 and 18.
"You don't turn this thing around overnight," Woods said. "This is a process."
Though the TPC Sawgrass gave up another batch of red numbers — Saturday's scoring average of 71.21 was the second-lowest for a TPC third round — it did enough to keep the leaderboard fluctuating over the final two hours.
At one point, Heath Slocum held a two-shot lead on the rest of the field after birdies at Nos. 11 and 12. But he didn't make another the rest of the way, carding two bogeys and a double bogey at the island 17th when his tee shot never sniffed dry land.
That opened the door for the pursuers coming up behind.
"You don't know what's going to happen out there," Allenby said. "All you can do is just play your own golf. … Obviously that leaderboard changed a couple of times there through the back nine."
And figures to again Sunday, after two days of spongy turf underfoot, daylong sun and freshening breezes turned the fairways and greens firm and fast.
"A 70 felt like a good score in the afternoon," Westwood said.
To win, the Englishman will have to overcome a little daunting recent history at TPC Sawgrass. In the past 14 years, only two men who took at least a share of the 54-hole lead into the final round managed to break 70.
Stephen Ames fired a 67 to win in 2006; Steve Elkington capped his 1997 triumph with a 69.
Some of those other scores, meanwhile, have been rather dyspeptic. A year ago, Alex Cejka closed with a 79. Paul Goydos carded a 74 two years ago; Sean O'Hair had a 76 in the 2007 edition.
"The only thing I try to do is perform as well as I know I can perform," Westwood said.