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Steady Paulson remains on top

The Walrus did a belly-flop, Lefty could do nothing right and Tiger never roared. It was a weird and wild day at the Players Championship, where the main attractions had some major meltdowns, and a couple of no-names remained cool under pressure.

Carl Paulson, who has never won on the PGA Tour and made the cut for the first time this year, shot his third consecutive 69 Saturday at the TPC-Sawgrass Stadium Course to take a one-shot lead into the final round over another nonwinner, New Zealand's Craig Perks.

Paulson is ranked 181st in the world; Perks is 203rd.

But they avoided the mishaps that seemingly plagued about everyone else during the third round.

Craig Stadler, nicknamed the Walrus and in hibernation much of the past few years, had a hole-in-one, three birdies, bogey, double bogey and triple bogey on the back nine to go from one shot off the lead to eight back.

The left-handed Phil Mickelson, second in the world, five-putted the 10th _ including four from 5 feet _ and shot 75.

And Woods, trying to become the first to defend his Players Championship title, had his troubles, three-putting the 13th, then hitting his drive in the water at the 14th and settling for 70.

"You have got one of the most demanding courses, and it does not allow for you to make mistakes," said Rocco Mediate, who hit his tee shot in the water at the 18th and was three shots back, tied for third with Jeff Sluman. "When you make mistakes, it makes you look quite foolish. It could be mistakes by inches.

"It's the best field of all-time every year. Whether you call it a major or not, the players don't really care because we know how hard it is to win."

The $6-million tournament _ with $1.08-million going to the winner _ has never had a player make it his first victory, which makes the task of Paulson and Perks all the more daunting.

Also on the line: a spot in next month's Masters and a five-year tour exemption.

Paulson, Friday's leader by one, completed 54 holes at 207, 9 under. Perks also shot 69 on a day when six players broke 70 to finish at 208, with Mediate (69) and Sluman (72) at 210. PGA Championship winner Davis Toms (70) and Mike Weir (68) were tied for fifth, four back. Woods was tied for 10th, six back.

Stadler, who was on pace for 66, dropped to a tie for 21st with 72. And Mickelson, who was one shot out of the lead starting the day and two at the turn, was tied for 15th, seven back.

"I stunk up the day real quick," Stadler said.

"I don't know what to say," Mickelson said.

Paulson, 31, is playing in his fourth tournament of the year after being hospitalized in January with viral meningitis and taking time off in February when his father had triple-bypass surgery. He missed the cut in his previous three starts.

But he barely wavered Saturday, making eagle, two birdies and one bogey.

"The key thing for me is not getting caught up in everything that's going on," Paulson said. "There's only one person I can control. My shots are the only ones I can have any say over. I've got to go out and worry about my game."

Paulson, who won twice in 1999 on the Tour, led by two strokes heading into the final round of the 2000 Tampa Bay Classic, only to lose to Clearwater's John Huston, who shot 65 to win by three. Paulson's second-place finish was his best on tour.

Perks, 35, is another unlikely contender. His best tour finish was a tie for second at the 2001 Honda Classic. He came to the United States at age 18 from his native New Zealand, played college golf at Oklahoma and at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, where he makes his home.

"It's funny because their accent is stronger than mine," Perks said. "They can't understand me and I can't understand them. We have a great time."

Perks is having a great time this weekend, though he admits being unaccustomed to the rarefied air he is breathing.

"I had a little trouble sleeping (Friday) night, and I'll probably have a bit more trouble (Saturday)," Perks said. "I've put myself in position to win one of the biggest golf tournaments in the world.

"It's going to be an exciting, nerve-racking experience. Hopefully I can play well. To play well and put myself in the last group on Sunday is very satisfying."

Paulson and Perks met briefly after the round and shook hands. Both were aware that history is against them.

"We were just talking," Paulson said. ""Why not?"

After Saturday, anything's possible.