PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Retief Goosen was about ready to give up.
His lower back was in so much pain that he decided to withdraw next week from Bay Hill so he could get treatment. A double bogey late in his round knocked him nine spots down the leaderboard, which he figured was the end of his hopes to get into the Masters.
One day later, everything changed.
Goosen ran off three straight birdies on the back nine and closed with a tough par from the fairway bunker on the 18th hole Saturday for a 6-under 65 that put him atop the leaderboard with Jim Furyk in the Transitions Championship.
Goosen is No. 52 in the world ranking, and he has to be in the top 50 after next week to avoid missing Augusta National — along with St. Andrews, his favorite course — for the first time since 1999.
Or he can avoid the math and just win the tournament, which comes with an automatic invitation.
Those prospects looked dim when he decided Friday to pull out of Bay Hill, and arranged for a protein injection in Virginia on Wednesday. Suddenly, the final round is packed with significance.
“Maybe I’m fighting for that last spot in Augusta,” he said.
Either way, it figures to be quite a battle.
Furyk, determined to overcome an atrocious season in 2011, surged into the lead with a 6-iron that covered the flag on the par-3 15th hole and settled 3 feet away for a birdie. He fell back into a tie on the 18th hole with a three-putt bogey up a steep ridge. That gave him a 66.
Furyk and Goosen, former U.S. Open champions who have won before at Innisbrook, were at 11-under 202.
“I made some birdies out of the rough today, and was able to knock some putts in and keep the round going,” Furyk said. “I played very patient, and when I struggled — no putts were going in — I didn’t let it bother me.”
Furyk was tied for the lead with Sang-moon Bae, the South Korean rookie who lost in the quarterfinals of the Match Play Championship to Rory McIlroy.
Bae escaped with a par on the par-5 14th after his 3-wood found the water by making an 18-foot putt. He wasn’t so fortunate on the 16th, however. He drove left into the trees to protect against water running down the right side of the hole. He pitched out to the fairway into the rough, flew the green and three-putted for a triple bogey.
He had at least made birdie on the 17th, and wound up with a 68.
Bae was one shot behind, along with Jason Dufner, who struggled to a 71 and hopes is worst round is out of the way as he tries to win for the first time on the PGA Tour.
Dufner tends to see the glass half-full. Even though he made three straight bogeys to lose a five-shot lead in the final hour of the PGA Championship, he thinks about the tough par he made on the 18th to at least get into a playoff that he lost to Keegan Bradley.
And even though Dufner’s bogey-free streak ended Saturday on a par 5, he walked off the Copperhead Course realizing that he was only one shot behind, very much in the hunt.
“Anything can happen with as many people bunched up like that,” he said.
Goosen started the third round five shots out of the lead and finished atop the leaderboard. There were 28 players separated by five shots going into the final round Sunday.
Ernie Els, who likely would need to win to get into the Masters, had a 68 and was only three shots behind. So was Luke Donald, who can return to No. 1 in the world by winning at Innisbrook.
Harrington has been dropping shots since his course-record 61 on Thursday. He had a 72, yet still was only four behind.
The mystery, however, is Goosen.
He has a bulging disk and a degenerating disk in his lower back, which forced him to miss two majors last year. Kicking a soccer ball with his son last month caused it to flare up again, and the pain has been getting worse. What has saved the South African this week is the warm weather, and a few adjustments in his stance to help get through the ball.
“It’s not good,” Goosen said.
He plans to get a protein injection in his disks on Wednesday in Virginia, similar to the treatment that Vijay Singh and Fred Couples have received in Germany. Goosen’s pain was so bad last year that his left leg went numb when he stooped over, and he started to put 90 percent of his weight on the right side.
He has lost length off the tee, which isn’t as big of a factor at Innisbrook. He atoned for that with his putting, which has carried him two a pair of U.S. Open titles over the years.
“The last three weeks, it’s really just started getting bad again,” Goosen said. “So hopefully, I’ll be ready to get going again after the Masters — or maybe the Masters, if I play well tomorrow.”
Furyk won the Transitions two years ago, part of a big year that ended with a $10 million bonus for winning the FedEx Cup. He hasn’t won since then, and Furyk said he had no one to blame but himself for falling out of the top 50.
He couldn’t wait for last year to end, though it finally did on a happy note. He shot 69 the last day at Sherwood for a tie for sixth, earning just enough points that he finished the year at No. 50 by two-hundredths of a point. That at least made him eligible for the Masters, though Furyk hasn’t had to worry about qualifying for majors for some 10 years.
His long offseason — Furyk didn’t return until Pebble Beach — allowed him to clear his head, and he also sorted out some equipment.
“My results probably don’t look good on paper, but I feel good about the way I’m playing,” Furyk said. “I’ve been playing much better golf this year than I was last year.”
DIVOTS: Stewart Cink had a hole-in-one on the par-3 eighth, notable in that he said he also made an ace on the same hole 10 years ago … Nine of the 20 players separated by four shots going into the final round are not eligible for the Masters. A win comes with an automatic invitation. The group includes Chris DiMarco and former PGA champion Shaun Micheel.
Take a look at how the round unfolded as the stars took to Innisbrook on Saturday:
• • •
Leaderboard update: 5:51 p.m. EDT
Luke Donald finished off his 1-under 70 with a par at the 18th and sits at 8 under for the tournament, three shots off the lead.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 5:38 p.m. EDT
Sang-Moon Bae finishes his round with a nice par at the 18th, coming up about 18 inches short on his birdie attempt. He finishes the day at 10 under and one shot off the lead held by Retief Goosen and Jim Furyk.
Luke Donald picked up his fourth bogey of the day, hitting his tee ball into a greenside bunker at the par-3 17th, pitching well past the hole and then two-putting. Donald slips back to 8 under, three off the lead.
Ken Duke cards a 2-under 69 to finish the round at 9 under.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 5:31 p.m. EDT
Leader Jim Furyk hits a nice tee ball at the par-4 18th and safely puts it onto the green, but will have at least 50 feet and a ridge to deal with on the putt. He three-putts for the first time this week and drops back to 11 under and is tied with Retief Goosen atop the leaderboard.
After his triple-bogey on No. 16, Sang-Moon Bae responded with a beautiful tee shot at the par-3 17th to about six feet. He drains the putt to move to 10 under, one off the lead.
Luke Donald is still at 9 under after seeing his chip at the 16th come up one revolution short and has to settle for a par.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 5:15 p.m. EDT
Entering what is called the “Snake Pit,” co-leader Sang-Moon Bae is in all sorts of trouble after a poor tee ball at the par-4 16th, yanking the ball dead left and into the forest. Playing competitor Ken Duke, who is 11 under, sent his tee shot right and into the water.
Having to pitch out sideways, Bae’s second shot has a bit too much mustard on it, running across the fairway and into rough about six feet above the water. Bae sends his third shot through the green and has to pitch out of the rough to try and save par. He hits a horrible pitch about 30 feet past the hole, misses the bogey putt, pushes his next putt and and picks up triple-bogey to fall back to 9 under. Duke also picks up double-bogey to fall back to 9 under.
On the 17th tee, co-leader Jim Furyk pushes his tee ball at the par 3 to the right and into a greenside bunker. He plays a beautiful bunker shot to about three feet for par. He makes it and now has a one-shot lead over Retief Goosen.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 4:58 p.m. EDT
Co-leader Sang-Moon Bae hits a false front at the par-3 15th hole, but plays a nice chip shot to about a foot and settles for a par to stay at 12 under.
Meanwhile, co-leader Jim Furyk finds trouble off the tee at the par-4 16th, but plays a nice shot out of the trees to the green. He two-putts for a par and stays at 12 under as well.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 4:47 p.m. EDT
Leader Sang-Moon Bae, who has 28 one-putts on the week, plays a nice drive at the par-5 14th hole, but pushes his fairway wood to the right and into the water in trying to go after the green in two. After dropping, Bae plays a nice shot into the green, giving himself about 30 feet for a par. And he nails the right-to-left bender to stay at 12 under.
Meanwhile, Jim Furyk nearly aces the par-3 15th hole and has less than four feet for birdie. He makes it to tie Bae atop the leaderboard.
Ken Duke follows Bae’s long putt with one of his own, but his is for birdie and he moves to 11 under.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 4:37 p.m. EDT
Luke Donald is making a move, pouring in a long birdie putt at the par-3 13th to move to 9 under and three shots off the lead.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 4:30 p.m. EDT
Sang-Moon Bae is clinging to his one-shot lead, securing a nice two-putt on the long 13th green to pick up a par and stay at 12 under.
Retief Goosen has wrapped up his round with a par at the 18th, carding a 6-under 65 to finish the day at 11 under and will be a big factor on Sunday. A top-10 finish by Goosen will likely secure a spot in the Masters for the South African.
Meanwhile, Jason Dufner picked up a birdie at the par-5 11th to move back to 10 under.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 4:17 p.m. EDT
After playing a poor second shot into a greenside bunker, Sang-Moon Bae pitches out to about 15 feet and nails the putt to save par at the par-4 12th hole, retaining his one-shot lead over Retief Goosen and Jim Furyk.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 4:12 p.m. EDT
Luke Donald has been sputtering after his opening eagle, but picked up a birdie at the par-5 11th to move back to 8 under, but is now four shots off the lead.
22 players are at 7 under or better for the tournament.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 4:07 p.m. EDT
Jim Furyk makes a tricky, right-to-left bender for birdie at the par-4 12th hole to get to 11 under, one shot back of Sang-Moon Bae and tied with Retief Goosen.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 4:02 p.m. EDT
After a poor second shot into the par-5 11th hole, leader Sang-Moon Bae gets up-and-down from the bunker for a birdie to move to 12 under.
But he still only has a one-shot lead after Retief Goosen makes a lengthy birdie putt at the tough par-4 16th hole. Goosen is 6 under on his round.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 3:57 p.m. EDT
John Mallinger picks up his second straight 5-under 66 to move to the clubhouse at 9 under, two shots off the current lead. Mallinger saved par at the par-4 18th to go bogey-free on Saturday.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 3:52 p.m. EDT
Retief Goosen continues his ascent up the leaderboard, now sitting at 10 under after another birdie at the par-3 15th hole. He is now only one shot off the lead.
Jim Furyk missed a great chance to move into a tie for the lead, settling for a par at the par-4 10th hole.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 3:42 p.m. EDT
Retief Goosen is making a charge, picking up a birdie at the par-5 14th hole to move to 9 under, two shots behind Sang-Moon Bae.
Bae missed a prime opportunity to go to 12 under, pushing his birdie putt to the right at the par-4 10th hole, settling for a tap-in par instead.
Padraig Harrington makes a lengthy par putt at the par-4 8th hole to stay at 8 under.
Ernie Els makes an easy birdie at the par-5 14th hole, hitting his third shot to about two feet. Els is also 8 under for the tournament.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 3:35 p.m. EDT
Jason Dufner birdies the par-4 7th hole after a brilliant second shot to about five feet under the hole. He moves to 10 under, one shot behind Sang-Moon Bae.
Chez Reavie is now at 8 under, while Webb Simpson has moved to 7 under.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 3:20 p.m. EDT
William McGirt moves to 9 under behind a birdie at the par-4 7th hole, two shots behind leader Sang-Moon Bae.
Bae picked up a nice par at the par-3 8th hole to maintain his one-shot lead over Jim Furyk.
Ernie Els carded a rare birdie at the par-3 13th hole to move to 7 under on the tournament.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 3:10 p.m. EDT
Jason Dufner made a mess of the par-5 5th hole, picking up a bogey to fall two shots behind new leader Sang-Moon Bae.
Defending champion Gary Woodland is in the clubhouse at 7 under along with David Toms and Shaun Micheel.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 3:05 p.m. EDT
Sang-Moon Bae has taken the solo lead with his fifth birdie on his front nine, the last of which came at the par-4 7th hole to move to 11 under, one shot clear of Jim Furyk and Jason Dufner.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 3:00 p.m. EDT
Luke Donald is having an up-and-down day, picking up his second bogey of the day at the par-4 6th hole. He has an eagle and birdie as well to sit two shots off the lead.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 2:50 p.m. EDT
Sang-Moon Bae has moved into a tie for the lead for the second time on Saturday, this time making a birdie bomb at the par-4 6th hole for his fourth birdie of the day.
Retief Goosen has moved to within two shots of the lead after a birdie at the par-4 9th hole. He is 3 under on his round.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 2:43 p.m. EDT
Jim Furyk nearly ties Dufner for the lead, but sees his long putt from off the green catch the left edge and skirt about 18 inches past the hole at the par-4 6th hole, settling for a par.
Luke Donald has joined the group at 9 under with a birdie at the par-5 5th hole. There are five players at 9 under.
Padraig Harrington, playing with Dufner, moved back to 8 under with a birdie at the par-4 3rd hole.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 2:38 p.m. EDT
John Mallinger (at the par-4 12th hole) and Sang-Moon Bae (at the par-5 5th hole) both narrowly miss birdie chances to stay one shot behind Jason Dufner.
Dufner is playing steady thus far, picking up another par at the par-4 3rd hole.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 2:30 p.m. EDT
Jim Furyk is now one shot back of Jason Dufner, making a nice birdie at the par-5 5th hole, taking advantage of a nice third shot to within 10 feet of the hole. Furyk is 3 under on his round.
There are 22 players within four shots of the lead.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 2:25 p.m. EDT
Jason Dufner misses a golden opportunity to extend his lead, lipping out a birdie putt at the par-4 2nd hole to remain at 10 under.
He is one shot ahead of Sang-Moon Bae, Ken Duke (2 under thru four holes) and John Mallinger (5 under thru 11 holes).
Padraig Harrington makes bogey at the par-4 2nd to fall back to 7 under.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 2:17 p.m. EDT
Sang-Moon Bae’s torrid start came to a quick halt at the par-3 4th shot, sending his tee ball into a greenside bunker, where he barely gets out his sand shot and lands in the rough. He plays a nice third shot, but has to tap in for a bogey to fall one behind Jason Dufner.
Dufner picked up a par at the par-5 1st hole.
William McGirt picked up a bogey at No. 2 to move back to 8 under, two shots off the lead.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 2:08 p.m. EDT
Sang-Moon Bae has moved into a tie for the lead – at least momentarily – by making a slick, left-to-right birdie putt at the par-4 3rd hole to open the day with three straight birdies.
Luke Donald three-putts the second green to drop back to 8 under, putting a halt to the momentum he had picked up with his eagle at No. 1.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 2:00 p.m. EDT
William McGirt plays a nice third shot to about five feet at the par-5 1st hole and he makes the putt to make it a three-way tie for second place at 9 under.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 1:52 p.m. EDT
Luke Donald finds himself in a greenside bunker in two at the par-5 1st hole, but knocks it in for eagle to move to 9 under, one shot behind Dufner. Sang-Moon Bae also moves to 9 under with a birdie at No. 2. Bae has started the day birdie-birdie.
Meanwhile, bomber Gary Woodland is 4 under thru 11 holes and has moved to 7 under, where there is a 10-way tie for sixth place.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 1:40 p.m. EDT
John Mallinger has started the day on fire, going 4 under thru eight holes and is now two shots back of Jason Dufner. Sang-Moon Bae also moves to 8 under with a birdie on No. 1.
Sergio Garcia made a nice birdie at No. 2 to move to 7 under, while Jim Furyk and John Senden both birdie the opening hole to join Garcia three shots back of the lead.
• • •
Leaderboard update: 1:25 p.m. EDT
A batch of players have moved to 7 under early, including Shaun Micheel, who is 5 under thru 12 holes on Saturday. Jerry Kelly, Kevin Streelman and Kenny Perry are also at 7 under.
Luke Donald (7 under) is about 10 minutes from teeing off, while Jason Dufner and Padraig Harrington will take to the tee in about 30 minutes.
• • •
Jason Dufner ready to win
Jason Dufner is 0-for-159 on the PGA Tour, the only player among the top 50 in the world without a win on any tour. He’ll take a two-shot lead into the weekend at the Transitions Championship. Story.
• • •
Arjun Atwal finally makes a cut
Arjun Atwal finally will pick up a paycheck at the end of this week, making his first cut in eight starts on the PGA Tour in 2012. Story.
• • •
Padraig Harrington riding his own roller coaster
Padraig Harrington continues to ride his personal roller coaster, carding a 2-over 73 on Friday. Story.
• • •
John Senden working on his short game
John Senden’s biggest weakness has been the flatstick. That is changing quickly. Story.
• • •
Padraig Harrington sets course record
Padraig Harrington knew he was playing better golf than his scores indicated. He just wasn’t expecting the lowest official score of his life, a 10-under 61 to set the course record at Transitions. Story.