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MASTERS: IT'S CROWDED AT THE TOP

Everybody's a dream waiting to come true today at Augusta National.

Now comes the soul-testing matter of making it happen.As the dogwood-trimmed curtain rises on the final round of the Masters golf tournament, Ben Crenshaw, who's as familiar to leader boards here as Brian Henninger is unfamiliar, shares the 54-hole lead with Henninger, an Augusta rookie, at 10-under par 206.

But they're just the point men in a Sunday free-for-all that begins with eight players within two shots of the lead and 18 within five shots.

Second-round leader Jay Haas, 1992 winner Fred Couples, Steve Elkington, Phil Mickelson and Scott Hoch are a shot behind at 207.

Curtis Strange, who bolted into contention with a seven-under par 65 Saturday, heads a group that includes David Frost and John Huston at eight-under 208, while Davis Love III and Greg Norman, heroes waiting to happen, are just three shots behind.

"I relish playing here. I think everyone does," said Crenshaw, who has had a long-time love affair with Augusta National. "That leader board is stacked. It's going to be some tournament. We all just want to give ourselves a chance on the back nine."

It would be enough to watch the final 18 holes of the Masters golf tournament unfold on their own, but this is the Masters and today is the Sunday of fortune when dreams and heroes are made and broken, usually somewhere along the most sublime back nine in golf.

It's a day that has Crenshaw playing with the spirit of his late teacher, Harvey Penick, on his shoulder. It has Henninger, who could pass for a jockey until he whips his driver to life, feeling the presence of Jack Nicklaus as he defies expectations in his first trip to the Masters.

There's Hoch with the ghost of his 1990 playoff failure. Strange has a history here, too, not to mention a nearly six-year blank spot since the second of his consecutive U.S. Open victories.

There's Mickelson, Haas and Frost, each close enough to smell the wisteria-tinged fragrance of their first major championship.

"You can't think about all the players. There's just too many to think about. It's too draining to try. You just have to try to shoot as low a round as you can," said Mickelson, who overcame a bogey-bogey start to play back into the heat.

How much Augusta National is willing to surrender today is the ultimate question. It began to regain some of the fire Thursday's rains robbed from it. Warm, dry weather will put a familiar Sunday crust on the razor-sharp greens, and then there's the fickle nature of Augusta National that beckons the daring, especially on Sunday.

"It's the nature of the beast. It's the world's most tempting golf course," Crenshaw said.

Crenshaw and Henninger are an unlikely combination at the top, mainly because Henninger didn't figure into the equation. He's a 31-year-old who looks 13, standing 5-8. He's here because he won the rain-shortened Deposit Guaranty Classic last year while the stars were off at the British Open.

Two years ago he was on the Nike Tour, where he won three times in nine starts. Now he's 18 holes from history.

"I feel like the outsider because I'm tied for the lead in the Masters, not because of the names that are on the leader board," said Henninger, who didn't begin to play golf seriously until he was a senior in high school in Oregon.

While most people figured he'd melt into the azaleas Saturday, Henninger pieced together a four-under par 68 that included a cross-country 50-foot birdie putt at the par-3 16th where Nicklaus has made himself famous so many times before.

After his 8-iron tee shot spun down a shelf at 16, Henninger did his own imitation of Nicklaus, by draining a birdie putt that broke more than 10 feet on its way to the hole.

"I hear Nicklaus down there. When I made that one, I could feel his presence on that hole," Henninger said.

"He's hit so many great shots there. The shadows, the colors, the people. It's strange down there but I like it."

No more so than Crenshaw likes Augusta National. He won here in 1984 and gushes when he speaks about what the Masters means to him. He played without a bogey Saturday, making three birdies and playing the kind of relaxed calm he would pay dearly to assure today.

Crenshaw has wrestled with his emotions this week after Penick, the man who taught him to play golf, passed away last Sunday. Crenshaw flew back to Austin, Texas, to be a pallbearer in Penick's funeral last week, and the idea of saying goodbye to his mentor with a victory at Augusta has run through his head this week.

"I'm trying awful hard," he said. "I think everything we've done was for Harvey or for our fathers or whomever. You want to do things like that. I'm trying like the dickens, just like everyone else."

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Additional Information

The leaders

Brian Henninger 70-68-68---206

Ben Crenshaw 0-67-69---206

Fred Couples 71-69-67---207

Steve Elkington 73-67-67---207

Phil Mickelson 66-71-70---207

Scott Hoch 69-67-71---207

Jay Haas 71-64-72---207

Curtis Strange 72-71-65---208

David Frost 66-71-71---208

John Huston 70-66-72---208

Greg Norman 73-68-68---209

Davis Love III 69-69-71---209