By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AKRON, Ohio (Reuters) - With champion Tiger Woods far out of contention, fellow Americans Sean O'Hair and Ryan Palmer charged into a tie for the lead in Saturday's third round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
O'Hair fired a six-under-par 64 and Palmer a sparkling 63, the only two bogey-free scores of the day, as the pair edged one shot clear of a tightly bunched leaderboard at Firestone Country Club.
The American duo finished level at nine-under 201 with compatriot Matt Kuchar alone in third after carding a 66 on a soft layout vulnerable to low scoring. Thirty-five players in the field of 80 shot rounds in the 60s.
"It's just a shootout tomorrow," the 28-year-old told reporters after covering the back nine in three under.
"Whoever is going to win this golf tournament is going to be the guy that's going to be ready to play tomorrow and be on top of his game. I'm definitely capable of doing that."
"I'm confident the way I'm swinging it and my putting is the best it's been in a long time," the 33-year-old Texan said.
"If I can avoid the amount of mistakes that I make off the tee and keep driving it good, I know I'll have a chance at the end."
Fan favorite Phil Mickelson, who has a golden opportunity to replace Woods as world number one after this week, briefly moved into a tie for the lead on the front nine before falling back after an erratic display.
The American left-hander, who missed 10 of 14 fairways during the third round, bogeyed two of the last five holes for a 71 to share 10th place at five under.
"I didn't play very well today and made some bogeys on the back nine that were costly," Mickelson said. "I'm going to have to play better tomorrow.
"But I feel like my iron play has been good, so I've been pleased with that. Goal number one (tomorrow) will be to get the ball in play off the tee."
Woods, champion here last year but a shadow of his former dominant self this week, completed his round 2-1/2 hours before the leaders teed off, ending the day 20 strokes adrift.
The 14-times major winner struggled to a dismal 75 in ideal scoring conditions for an 11-over total of 221, the worst of his PGA Tour career relative to par.
"I drove it terrible, hit my irons terrible, didn't putt well and it added up to a lot," Woods told a Tour official after recording two birdies, five bogeys and a double-bogey.
The American's top ranking, which he has held for 269 consecutive weeks, is now under severe threat with Mickelson well positioned to replace him at the end of this week.
Masters champion Mickelson would take over with a top-four finish if Woods places outside the top 44.
South African Retief Goosen, who held a one-shot lead going into the third round, triple-bogeyed the opening hole on the way to a 73 and a tie for 16th at five under.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)