ATLANTA - This isn't some cockamamie made-for-television shootout such as the one they staged in prime time two summers ago. And, David Duval hopes, today's matchup with Tiger Woods won't have the same disastrous result as what happened this summer in the final round of the British Open.
In fact, the third round of the $5 million Tour Championship here at the East Lake Golf Club probably won't determine much more than tomorrow's final-round pairings. That is, unless Woods or Duval run away from each other and the other 28 players in this elite field.
With a 2-under-par 68 yesterday, Duval took the lead at 7-under-par 133. After shooting an adventurous round of 4-under-par 66 that included five birdies, three bogeys and an eagle, Woods is one shot behind. Chris Perry, who played with Woods yesterday, is also at 6-under after a 5-under-par 65.
While everyone will be looking at the featured pairing, Duval insisted he won't get caught up in trying to out-duel the player who took the world's No. 1 ranking away from him last year. Having recently ended an 18-month winless drought, Duval has the confidence he might have been lacking during his back-nine blowup at St. Andrews.
"Believe it or not, I don't come in here thinking that I have just to beat Tiger and that kind of the insinuation there," said Duval, seemingly recovered from the back injury that plagued him for most of the summer. "I feel like you come into these events, you have to play great regardless of what happens."
There are five other players within three shots of Duval. Reigning Masters champion Vijay Singh and former PGA champion Paul Azinger both shot 66 yesterday and are tied at 5-under 135. Singh, it should be noted, shares the course record of 63 with East Lake's favorite son, the legendary Bobby Jones.
Others in contention at 4-under-par 136 are two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, the first-round leader, who struggled with a 2-over 72; Phil Mickelson, who made a double bogey and a bogey in the last three holes to finish with a 1-under par 69; and journeyman David Toms, who shot 3-under-par 67.
"Yesterday, I felt like I scored terrific for the way I hit the ball. Today, I scored terrible for the way I hit the ball," said Mickelson, whose downfall came when he flubbed one of his patented flop shots on the par-4 16th and wound up making the double bogey. "There's 36 holes left, and I'll try to make up the difference."
That's what Woods did yesterday. The player who recently ended a stretch of 110 holes without a bogey made two in the first six holes. It was his bogey on the par-3 sixth that bothered him the most. After stepping away while a crane flew onto the island green, Woods watched his tee shot go into a bunker and then missed a 5-footer for par.
"With no wind, a 9-iron in my hand, to hit that far left, for some reason that irritated me," Woods said.
Woods tossed his ball disgustedly over his shoulder and into the pond as he walked to the seventh tee. It was there that he began his comeback by cracking a 3-wood down the middle of the fairway. He wound up with a 15-foot birdie, the first of three in the next five holes.
No longer was anyone thinking about Woods going over par for the first time since the first round of the GTE Byron Nelson Classic in May, a stretch of 41 rounds. When he made a 20-foot eagle on the par-5 15th, Woods was at 6-under and suddenly one shot off the lead shared at the time by Perry, Duval and Mickelson.
"I knew he was going to make that putt," said Perry, who was looking at a putt from a similar distance. "It was pretty much, `Tiger, pick it up' because that is what he thrives on, that heroic shot or great momentum thing that he needs. I was fortunate to make my birdie putt on top of him. It was kind of neat."
Perry, the last player to make the field here, went from playing as a single on Thursday after Jim Furyk pulled out because of injury to playing with the world's best player yesterday. The difference was not lost on the 39-year-old journeyman, the son of former major league pitcher Jim Perry.
There were only 10 people in Perry's gallery for the start of the opening round.
"It was my wife and my caddie's wife," said Perry, exaggerating only a little. "I asked [PGA Tour commissioner] Tim Finchem to play with me, but he turned me down."
Playing with Woods for only the second time, Perry tried to keep his mind on his own game. He was able to settle his nerves with an 8-foot birdie on the par-4 opening hole to get to 2-under, then made three birdies in four holes starting at the par-5 ninth. Twice, he hit his approach shots stiff, including from the right rough on the par-4 12th.
"I think when you get paired with the best, you want to play well too," said Perry, who has won only once in a 15-year career that was interrupted by a two-year stint on the Nike Tour. "I mean, any guy that you play with through the week, you hope he plays well, but you are one shot better."
Not that Perry didn't find himself watching Woods.