AUGUSTA, Ga. - If today goes anything like the previous three days, we could be talking about the 71st Masters for years to come.

Not because Tiger Woods is going to win by some laughable, historic margin like 12 shots again, because that's not going to happen.

Shooting for his fifth Masters title, with his record and 1 stroke separating him from leader Stuart Appleby, yeah, it's Woods' to lose. But a win for the ages? Nah.

Even Appleby, who will be paired with Mr. 12 Majors as he shoots for his first, hooted with laughter last night during his post-round news conference when some genius pointed out the discrepancy in their records.

"Wow, see that writer," Appleby said. "He stepped out on a limb and said Tiger has an advantage."

We also won't be talking about this Masters because Justin Rose, who is tied with Woods 1 shot off the lead, or Padraig Harrington, who is 2 shots back at 4-over, might find some way to end the drought of victories by Europeans in majors at 29.

And we won't talk about it because Vaughn Taylor (2 back at 4 over), could become the first hometown boy to win the Masters since Augustan Larry Mize in 1987, or because Appleby, if he outduels Woods, would be the first Australian ever to win the Masters.

If today goes at all like the past three, we'll be talking about '07 as the year of the "Massacre at the Masters," the year that the golf course, the conditions and the weather all conspired to beat the bloody daylights out of the best players in the world.

Yesterday, after a nor'easter or worse blew into town and nearly froze the azaleas, the results were the highest third-round leading score in the history of the Masters, according to tournament officials, and 60 guys who would rather have spent the day curled up in front of a fireplace.

If yesterday had been a fight, they would have called it, with the players crying, "No mas, no mas." Augusta National, the winner by a knockout.

It was that cold, that bad, like nothing anybody could remember at the Masters.

The effect on the golf was punishing for most people. Eleven guys shot in the 80s. Overall, the field was 321 over par.

Only Retief Goosen managed to shoot under par, 2-under 70, to get within 4 shots of the lead. For only the sixth time in the history of the Masters, nobody shot in the 60s during the third round.

Woods, playing early for him, was one of the few to prevail over firm, fast conditions and the elements.

Starting at 3-over, 5 shots out of the lead, Woods sank birdie putts of 18 and 20 feet on the front nine to get to within three shots of the lead. When he picked up another birdie at the par 13th, the famously picturesque par 5, Woods was suddenly only 2 shots off the pace and looking as if he might surge into the lead.

The Tiger Express got derailed, however, when he again blew a good round by bogeying the two closing holes, as he had on Thursday. At the 17th, he hit his tee shot in the trees left of the fairway. And at the 18th, his approach shot hung up in the wind and dropped well short of the green.

"It was a tough day with all the wind gusts," Woods said. "You hit quality shots and just get absolutely hosed."

Meanwhile, behind Woods, solid runs at the lead by Zach Johnson (76), Justin Rose (75), Vijay Singh (79), Harrington (75) and Taylor (77) were all coming unraveled in the icy grip of the weather and Augusta National.

For much of the day, it looked as if Appleby would be the only player to make it to the clubhouse under par for 54 holes. He started with three straight birdies and was 2-under through 16 holes, 1-under for the tournament.

Then came the 17th. He yanked his tee shot into a bunker in the adjoining seventh fairway, caught it thin coming out of the bunker, banged it around in the trees, then three-putted for a triple-bogey.

"It was a real mind game out there," said Appleby. "I just told myself to relax and imagine you're just playing golf. It doesn't matter what stage you're on."

As he prepares to face off with Woods today, it is not lost on Appleby that the stage is bigger still and that the winner of the Masters for the last 16 years has come out of the final pairing.

"I will just plod along, do what I've been doing for the last few days," said Appleby. "There's a lot of work left."

Read Joe Logan's daily Masters blog at http://golfinq.

blogspot.com/

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Contact staff writer Joe Logan
at 215-854-5604 or jlogan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/joelogan.