Snedeker has been around the leaderboard all week. On Saturday, he shot a 3-under-par 69 to jump all the way to the top and share the lead with Angel Cabrera going into Championship Sunday at the 77th Masters. At 7-under 209, they hold a one-shot lead over Australian Adam Scott.
Running at or near the top has been a familiar position for Snedeker since the FedEx Cup playoffs started last August. Over the first six weeks of this PGA Tour season, the 32-year-old Nashville native scored a third and two seconds leading up to a win at Pebble Beach.
Then it was revealed he was playing on sore ribs. He took time off to heal and recharge, then missed the cut in both of the events he played in the run-up to the Masters, but those six weeks off the radar did nothing to dull his confidence.
As he proclaimed Saturday, “I’m here to win.”
“I’ve spent 32 years of my life getting ready for tomorrow and it’s all been a learning process,” Snedeker said. “I am completely, 100 percent sure that I’m ready to handle (it) no matter what happens. I’m going to be disappointed if I don’t win, period.
“I’m not here to get a good finish. I’m not here to finish Top-5. I’m here to win and that’s all I’m going to be focused on tomorrow. I realize what I have to do to do that and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that that happens.”
Snedeker’s best finish in five previous Masters is a T-3 in 2008. He stayed in the top three that entire week even though he admitted Saturday he had “no clue what I was doing” in terms of a game plan.
Now, he claims to have a “completely clear focus” of what he must do to win his first major. He has to drive it well, play the par-5s well and, of course, putt well. Going into the round, he’s tied for fourth this week in fairways hit and greens in regulation (with Cabrera) and tied for ninth (with Cabrera) in putts per greens in regulation.
He was doing all those things early this year and says now he’s “very, very close” to being back to that point in his game. He’s gotten around Augusta National this week in rounds of 70, 70, 69.
“It’s been two seasons I guess is the best way to put it,” he said. “The first part of the season I was healthy, playing great, nothing was wrong. Then I got hurt and had to start pretty much from scratch again, but I’m getting that feeling back, the momentum back.
“I’m fresh. I’m mentally fresh, physical fresh and, you know, this is what I’ve worked my whole for — tomorrow. I’m really excited about what tomorrow holds.”
Snedeker is the lone American among the top five contenders. Behind Scott are Aussies Jason Day, the second-round leader, and first-round co-leader Marc Leishman at 211. Day was tied for the lead at 7-under through 16, then bogeyed his last two holes.
International players have won three of the last five Masters. There has never been an Australian winner.
American Matt Kuchar is sixth at 212. Pre-tournament favorite Tiger Woods was assessed a two-shot penalty for playing from the wrong spot after his ball caromed off the flagstick into the water on 15 Friday, but shot 70 Saturday and was tied with South African Tim Clark at 213. Clark had the best round of the day (67).
Snedeker’s round was just plodding along with 12 straight pars, but the Vanderbilt product remained patient. He made his move with birdies on both par-5s on the back and followed it with another at 16.
Cabrera, a 43-year-old Argentine, has only two wins on the PGA Tour, but they’ve been really big one — here in 2009 and the 2007 U.S. Open.
He held the lead outright Saturday at 7-under through 11 holes, but bogeyed 12 and 13 to drop off the pace. He got a shot back with a birdie on 16 and finished it off with a birdie at 18 after hitting a 5-iron from 185 yards to 13 feet.
Cabrera is the only player in the top eight other than Woods who has won a major.
“Today, I wanted to hit the ball under par and I did it,” he said. “Tomorrow, there’s not a lot of margin for error. I’ve just got to play well so I can win the tournament.”
Cabrera held the lead going into the final round in 2009 and admitted he was “nervous, anxious” going into that Sunday. He wound up in a playoff with Chad Campbell and Kenny Perry, where he won with a par on the second extra hole.
He says he’s “very comfortable” with his position now and, like Snedeker, knows what he has to do today.
“It’s definition time,” he said. “Tomorrow it’s more about execution and patience. I don’t think it’s a big advantage that I’ve won before. It’s more about patience.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.