PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Tiger Woods
poured in one birdie after another, more than he had ever made in one
round of the U.S. Open, each of them followed by cheers that could be
heard down the Pacific coastline at Pebble Beach.
Dustin Johnson didn't realize they
were for Woods. He played like he didn't care.
Johnson turned in a prime-time
performance of his own Saturday in the U.S. Open, overpowering Pebble
Beach and closing with two birdies for a 5-under 66 to build a
three-shot lead over Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland.
"If I keep hitting like I've been
hitting … then I'm going to be tough to beat," Johnson said.
He usually is at Pebble Beach.
Johnson is the two-time defending
champion at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, and he looks just as tough
when the conditions are fast and scary and a U.S. Open trophy is on the
All he lacks is the experience of 14
majors that Woods brings to the final round on Sunday.
Nine shots out of the lead after a
pair of sloppy bogeys early in his round, Woods came to life by making
the clutch putts and hitting the extraordinary shots that have been
missing since he returned to competition two months ago.
Woods finally looked like the Woods of
old, closing out his round with three straight birdies, none more
Tiger-like than the par-5 18th. Blocked by a cypress tree from about 260
yards away with the ocean breeze in his face, Woods sent his 3-wood
around the left side of the tree, out toward the Pacific and onto the
green 15 feet from the pin for his eighth birdie of the round.
He shot a 66, his best score of the
year, and his 31 on the back nine was eight shots better than the course
"It's been a while," Woods said. "I
hadn't played good enough for anyone to cheer anything. So it was nice
to actually put it together on the back nine and put myself right back
in the championship."
It was a brilliant display that gave
him a shot at his 15th major championship and fourth U.S. Open, the
second at Pebble.
Then along came Johnson, who made it
more of a long shot for Woods with two final birdies that put him at
6-under 207, five shots clear of the world's No. 1 player.
In between them was McDowell, who
struggled down the stretch, fell out of the lead on the 17th and
finished with a 71. McDowell will play in the final group with Johnson,
neither of them with experience contending in a major.
Ahead of them will be a familiar red
shirt, with a game that is starting to look familiar, too.
"All the Opens that I've won, I've
had one stretch of nine holes … were you put it together," Woods said.
"That's what most Open champions have done. And I did it today."
Johnson, who played a practice round
with Woods on Monday, isn't the type to get flustered. Asked how he
would feel on Sunday with a chance to win his first major, the
25-year-old from South Carolina smiled as if he knew he had a winning
"I think I'm going to feel good," he
Woods has been raving about Johnson's
power all week, having played the final round of the Memorial with him
and the practice round on Monday, after which Woods called him "stupid
Johnson showed that Saturday.
The USGA moved the tees forward on
No. 4 to make it play 284 yards up the hill and tempt players to try to
drive the green. Johnson did just that — with a 3-iron to four feet for
an eagle. And on the 18th, the same hole where Woods hit 3-wood off the
tee and 3-wood onto the green for the loudest cheer of the day, Johnson
got there with a driver and a 6-iron.
"Length is an advantage a lot of
places, but definitely here, especially if I'm hitting it in the
fairway," Johnson said. "Because the ball is going a long way. I'm
hitting it extra far."
Johnson, McDowell and Woods were the
only three players who remained under par, while Ernie Els (72) and
Gregory Havret of France (69) were at even-par 213.
Phil Mickelson stumbled at the start,
nearly fell apart along the coastal holes when he had to play one shot
right-handed, and had to scramble for par on the closing hole when his
tee shot bounced off the rocks and rolled back down on the beach.
Mickelson, runner-up in the U.S. Open
a record five times, wound up with a 73 and was seven shots out of the
"I didn't hit it as well as I did
yesterday, so I had to fight pretty hard to get some up-and-downs — some
ridiculous up-and-downs — to keep it within striking distance," said
Mickelson, who was at 1-over 214.
Mickelson normally would settle for
1-over par going into the last round of a U.S. Open. He just didn't
expect Johnson, one of his regular practice partners, to surge so far
"But anything can happen on Sunday,"
Mickelson said. "And if you make a move, you can make up a lot of
That's exactly what Woods did.
After bogeys on the second and third
holes, he ran off birdies on the next three and made the turn in even
par. Birdies on the 11th and 13th holes got him closer to the
conversation, and the final three holes set off a series of cheers that
could be heard from all corners of the peninsula.
He rolled in a 12-foot birdie from
the 16th, then made the downhill 15-footer from the fringe of the 17th,
raising his index finger in the air.
The old Tiger showed up on the 18th
Blocked behind a pair of cypress
trees and hitting into an ocean breeze, Woods hit a 3-wood toward the
Pacific and urged it on toward the green. "C'mon! C'mon!" he screamed at
it, and followed that with a "Yes!" when it stopped in easy two-putt
"I was hitting shots like this every
now and again," Woods said. "I would get into two-, three-hole
stretches, but I haven't strung it out for more than that. And today, I
Even so, history is working against
Woods has never won any of his 14
majors when he wasn't at least tied for the lead going into the final
round. He at least gave himself a chance. And while he won by a record
15 shots the last time the U.S. Open was played at Pebble Beach, in
2000, he rallied from a five-shot deficit earlier that year to win the
Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, a tournament he no longer plays.
The USGA pushed back the starting
times so the third round could be broadcast in prime time on the East
Cost, just like two years ago at Torrey Pines. Woods delivered quite a
show that day by turning a five-shot deficit into a one-shot lead.
Early Saturday, it looked like
McDowell would be the one putting on a show.
He quickly built a four-shot lead
with birdies on the opening two holes and looked unflappable until
Johnson took over on No. 7 with a lob wedge within a foot for birdie.
McDowell got the lead back with a birdie on the ninth, where Johnson
missed a three-footer for par, and the two were tied on the 17th until
McDowell missed the green and took bogey while Johnson was making
Another birdie to finish, and, just
like that, Johnson was three shots ahead.
"He was awesome today," McDowell
said. "He really just stood up and had no fear, hit the shots — hit all
the shots. He's going to go home and sleep on a three-shot lead, and
we'll see how he feels."