AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Fred Couples looks much the same whether he is leading a tournament or is out of contention, and the tournament often looks the same to him whether it's a major championship such as the 62nd Masters or some early-season event on the West Coast.
He looks as if he's about to fall asleep.
"I'm nervous," he said yesterday, "but it's a calm nervous."
In this case, it was the calm before what could be a raucous final round at Augusta National.
Though the 1992 champion built the lead he has either held or shared since the tournament began, shooting a 1-under-par 71 for a 54-hole total of 6-under-par 210, all Couples or anyone else had to do was look at the names and scores below him on the leader board to know what's in store today.
Couples, who led by as many as three shots before missing a six-foot putt for par on the 18th hole, leads Mark O'Meara, Paul Azinger and Phil Mickelson by two shots. Jim Furyk and David Duval, who came into the day tied with Couples, are three shots behind.
Former champion Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain is four shots behind, as are Jay Haas and Scott Hoch. Perhaps the most interesting group among those chasing Couples is at 1-under 215. In that celebrated foursome is six-time winner Jack Nicklaus, defending champion Tiger Woods, two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els and Colin Montgomerie of Scotland.
There are six players at even-par. Davis Love and Justin Leonard got back in the hunt yesterday, the reigning PGA champion shooting a 5-under-par 67 and the reigning British Open champion finishing with a 3-under 69. Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland and Per-Ulrik Johansson of Sweden also shot 67 to get back to even par, while reigning U.S. Amateur champion Matt Kuchar shot 68 to get there and Scott McCarron stayed there.
"There's a lot more guys in there, so I can't go out and shoot the score I did today and win," said Couples, 38. "You can be as aggressive as you want. But what you need to do is play very good golf. You have to be smart. I have yet to make too many big blunders and I don't expect to make any tomorrow."
The biggest mistake among those in contention yesterday occurred when Haas, tied for the lead with Couples at 5-under par, hit a fat tee shot on the 155-yard 12th hole. The ball fell way short of the green, and into Rae's Creek. Haas would double-bogey the hole.
Couples then moved to 7-under when he rifled a 3-iron from 205 yards away to within 18 inches of the cup on the par-5 13th hole, and tapped in for eagle. But he bogeyed the par-4 14th, made birdie on the par-5 15th and missed the putt on the par-4 18th.
"I felt like I played a really good round of golf," said Couples, who has been more steady and, except for his eagle, a bit less spectacular than he was here in winning six years ago. "I made a few mistakes. I don't want to go out there tomorrow, shoot 75 and lose. If I play well and Phil shoots 68 and wins, God bless him."
The lead Couples will take into today's round is seven shots less than the one Woods took into last year's final round, when he wound up winning by a record 12 shots with a tournament record score of 18-under par. It's also four shots less than the one Greg Norman blew in losing to Nick Faldo here two years ago.
Many of those chasing Couples are accomplished players seeking their first major championship, the closest being Mickelson and O'Meara. Mickelson, 27, finished third at the 1996 Masters and third at the PGA Championship in 1994. O'Meara, 41, has done no better here than a tie for fourth in 1992 and third-place finishes in each of the other three majors.
"I think the reason why is sometimes I come in here and put too much pressure on myself," said O'Meara, who climbed back in contention with a 68 yesterday. "And in the past, my short game wasn't up to where it needed to be on a golf course like this, getting frustrated, not being patient enough."
After starting out four shots behind, then moving up the leader board with three birdies on his first five holes, Mickelson climbed to within a shot of Couples at 6-under through 14 holes. But he bo- geyed his last two holes to finish with a 3-under-par 69. Known for playing too erratically at times in majors, Mickelson plans to take a more conservative approach today.
"I don't look at tomorrow as a round where it's important to attack the pins," said Mickelson. "I look at it as a round where you have to be patient and attack where the pins are accessible. The biggest thing is that this isn't a regular tournament. It's not a case where I can go low."
Some might not have a choice, but are certainly capable of making a dramatic comeback. Woods, whose amateur career was punctuated by his incredible comebacks, has less of a deficit than he had earlier this year when he came from eight shots back in the final round to beat Els in a tournament in Thailand. Three of Leonard's four victories have come when he's been five shots behind going into the final round.