Tiger Woods, aiming for a seventh consecutive victory on the PGA Tour, moved ominously into the title hunt at the Buick Invitational on Saturday.
The world number one, seven off the pace at the start of the day, fired a three-under-par 69 in the third round to finish two shots off the lead at Torrey Pines.
PGA Tour rookie Brandt Snedeker missed a six-foot birdie putt at the last and had to settle for a 74 and a share of the lead at 11-under 205 with Australia's Andrew Buckle (68).
American Kevin Sutherland carded a 70 to lie third at 10 under, one stroke ahead of Woods and fellow Americans Troy Matteson (69), Charles Howell III (73) and Bill Haas (72).
"I feel like things have progressed and got better each day," Woods told reporters after making three birdies in a blemish-free display over the tough South Course.
"I've put myself right there in contention with a chance tomorrow. Hopefully I can stay out of the bunkers and make a few putts.
The 31-year-old American, who salvaged par after finding greenside bunkers on 15 and 16, is back in action for the first time since winning the Target World Challenge in California midway through last month.
"It's nice to be in contention the first week out," added Woods, who shot one of only eight sub-70 scores on the day.
"I'm very pleased with the way I hit it today but this golf course is not playing easy. The fairways are fast and these greens are firming up a little bit."
Chasing his fifth victory at Torrey Pines in 10 starts, Woods made his first move of the day at the fourth where he struck a superb approach to within seven feet of the flag.
He also birdied the par-five sixth, after his second shot ended up just short of the green, and the seventh, where he rolled in a 23-footer.
With his long game in sparkling order, Woods had good birdie chances at the second and ninth but missed putts from five and seven feet.
He failed to make up further ground after the turn, reeling off nine consecutive pars to stay at nine under.
Snedeker, despite struggling for accuracy off the tee, held on to a share of the lead with a mix of seven bogeys and five birdies.
His best moment came at the par-four fifth where he holed out from a greenside bunker for his second birdie of the day.
"That course was playing extremely difficult today," the 26-year-old from Nashville, Tennessee said.
"But it was fun. People who know me say it was a Brandt Snedeker ride. Shoot every way, try to get up and down and make a few putts.
"I gave myself a lot of chances and kind of survived a bad day of ball-striking. This is where I want to be. I know I have the talent and the game to be here."
Tour rookie Buckle, winner of the world junior title in the 15-17 age group at Torrey Pines in 1999 and 2000, joined Snedeker at 11 under by rolling in a 15-foot birdie putt at the last.
South Korea's Charlie Wi returned a 73 to share eighth place at eight under with six others, including former major winners Mark Calcavecchia (68) and Rich Beem (73).
Three-times champion Phil Mickelson carded a 73 to finish at three under, two strokes better than world number six Vijay Singh (74).