Brandt Snedeker acknowledges the applause from the gallery after sinking his putt on the 18th hole during the third round of the Tour Championship golf tournament Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
ATLANTA -- Brandt Snedeker gave himself the opportunity he wanted in the FedEx Cup. He also has the company he expected.
Snedeker played one of his best rounds this year at just the right time Saturday, making a collection of tough putts and relying on his short game to pick up a couple of other birdies on his way to a 6-under 64 that gave him a share of the lead with Justin Rose in the Tour Championship.
That means he now only has to win today at East Lake to claim the FedEx Cup and its $10 million prize, the richest payoff in golf.
So does Rory McIlroy, who was only three shots out of the lead.
Ditto for Tiger Woods, four shots behind.
The Tour Championship has never had so much at stake for so many top players.
"It's going to be one of the most exciting Sundays of the year," McIlroy said after a 68. "Great to be in the mix."
McIlroy, who won the last two FedEx Cup playoff events, had his 11th consecutive round in the 60s. Woods salvaged an important par after his shot ricocheted off a Georgia pine and wound up with a 67.
Snedeker, McIlroy and Woods were among the top five seeds coming into the Tour Championship, giving each the best shot at the $10 million because they only have to win the Tour Championship no matter what anyone else does at East Lake.
They won't be the only players with a chance to win at least one trophy -- the Tour Championship -- on Sunday. Rose will be in the final group with Snedeker, and while it's unlikely he can win the FedEx Cup, the Englishman surely would settle for his second win of the year against a strong field.
"I have the advantage of just playing the Tour Championship," said Rose, who won a World Golf Championship at Doral in March. "The whole year, we've been grinding for the FedEx Cup, and it's still possible. It's not an easy golf course. Things can happen out there. But for me, it's about one tournament."
Snedeker and Rose were at 8-under 202.
Ryan Moore spoiled his round with a bogey on the 17th and still had a 65, putting him alone in third at 6 under.
Jim Furyk, the 36-hole leader, was tied for the lead until he pulled his tee shot into the water on the 17th, hit the next tee shot into the gallery, his fourth shot into a bunker and made triple bogey that sent him tumbling down to a 72. He was still in the mix at 205, along with McIlroy and Masters champion Bubba Watson, who had a double bogey on the 16th hole and shot 70.
Typical of the FedEx Cup playoffs, there was plenty of star power in contention, with 11 of the top 14 players on the leaderboard headed to the Ryder Cup next week.
For now, the attention shifts in a big way to the $10 million payoff.
"My first goal for this week is achieved," Snedeker said. "And that is to have a chance going into Sunday. It should be a lot of fun."
Snedeker also shot a 64 in the second round of the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, though he rated this one as better. There was no wind at Lytham, and the conditions were relatively soft. East Lake demanded a crisp game as the wind rustled pine branches and the greens became firm.
"It was so tough today," Snedeker said. "The wind made it so hard to hit the fairways here because the wind seemed like it would move the ball 4 or 5 yards one way or the other, and these fairways might be 15 yards side. Just every iron shot has to be hit so crisply to control your distances, and I did a great job of that today."
The next step for Snedeker is winning from the last group, something he has never done. The fast talker from Tennessee is the master of coming from behind on the last day. He is tied with Rose, with a number of stars behind him all aiming for the big prize -- the Tour Championship, which also would bring the FedEx Cup.
"It looks like I've got a shot at it tomorrow," Woods said.
He made two birdies on the back nine to stay in the chase, though no shot proved as valuable as the par on the 16th. From deep in the woods to the right of the fairway, Woods saw a tiny gap in the trees and was only concerned that with his ball sitting down in the rough, it might come out low or high. He forgot about the direction, pulled it slightly and it caromed off the tree and sideways into the fairway. From there, he stuffed his third shot into 12 feet and holed the putt for par.
The FedEx Cup is up for grabs in so many ways.
Woods, McIlroy and Snedeker could win it by finishing second, depending on how the others fare. There's even one scenario in which Woods could finish alone in third and McIlroy could be alone in fourth, and they would be tied in the FedEx Cup and go to the par-3 18th to play off for the $10 million title.
All three of them are thinking more about trophies than mathematical equations.
"I'm playing for the 'W,' and tomorrow I get a great shot at it," Woods said. "All the money and awards and all of that stuff, that comes along with winning championships. That's the way I've always looked at it, and right now, I'm four back."
McIlroy showed up at East Lake for the first time believing he had to win, and that hasn't changed. Watson and Furyk are tied with him. Snedeker and Rose are ahead of him. Woods is right behind him.
"They're not up at the top of the standings for nothing," McIlroy said. "They're playing well. They've played well the last few weeks. I knew coming in there if I won, I'd win everything, and that's still my attitude going into tomorrow."
Snedeker is going for his fourth PGA Tour win, though he has never won from the final group. He has come from five, six and seven shots behind, the latter at Torrey Pines at the start of the year when Kyle Stanley made triple bogey on the last hole. Snedeker doesn't plan to look at the leaderboard and figure out where he is in the FedEx Cup.
With so many players still in contention -- 12 players separated by five shots going into the final round -- a player who describes himself as a "jumpy" will have to settle down.
"My goal tomorrow is to shoot as low as I possibly can," Snedeker said. "If that's 63, it's 63. If it's 72, it's 72. Whatever it is, it's going to be everything I've got on that golf course tomorrow."