SAN FRANCISCO – The only thing missing from the scoreboard at the 112th U.S. Open is the ubiquitous Fleck or Simpson, surprise potential champions with the ability to turn spectacles into something, well, subdued.
Sure Tiger Woods posted his worst Round 3 score in 15 Opens as a professional and Phil Mickelson celebrated his 42nd birthday with a pedestrian 71 that tied him for, wait for it . . . 42nd, but compared to Olympic Opens past this one through three rounds is a keeper.
This time around we have a Northern Irishman -- there’s always a Northern Irishman at the national championship -- two former Open champions, the best player without a major and a dollop of intrigue by way of a 17-year-old amateur and a man whose nickname is Junkman.
Does it get any better than that?
Of course it does. Woods-Mickelson was preferred and Rory McIlroy-Luke Donald would have been a respected Plan B, but the two Euros didn’t make the weekend and the Americans played Saturday like they would rather have missed the cut. But given The Olympic Club’s track record as an Open stage Saturday’s board was nothing short of encouraging.
Graeme McDowell, who won the last NorCal Open down the road at Pebble Beach in 2010, charged into the lead with a 2-under 68 that was capped by a textbook birdie at the last; while Jim Furyk, who in 17 Open starts has missed just two cuts, held serve with an even-par 70.
They lead Fredrik 'Junkman' Jacobson (68) by two strokes with two-time Open champion Ernie Els (68) and world No. 3 Lee Westwood (67) another shot back at 2 over.
On what was widely considered the easiest scoring day of the week – a day that featured 13 sub-par scores compared to just six on Friday – a condensed leaderboard at least gave the impression that after four nondescript Opens the Lake Course was poised to deliver a winner.
What the leaderboard lacks in overt star power it makes up for in possibilities. Seventeen players are within five strokes of the lead heading into what promises to be a demanding day.
“It’s wide open,” said McDowell, who admitted to needing a one-minute pep talk from sports psychologist Bob Rotella before his round. “I look at guys at 2, 3, 4 under par and think they should have a chance.”
That’s good news, at least in theory, for Woods, who played his first six holes in 3 over, The Olympic Club’s two par 5s in 1 over and ended his round with a miss-hit chip at the last that all added up to a third-round 75 and fading chances in fading light at the U.S. Open.
For the day Woods hit 7 of 14 fairways, 11 of 17 greens in regulation but it was his worst putting round in what was already a bad putting week that ultimately cost him. He followed efforts of 29 and 31 putts for Rounds 1 and 2 with a 34-putt effort that featured just one birdie.
“It's just patience. It's just a few birdies here and there. It's not like where you have to go out there and shoot 62 and 63,” Woods said. “This is a U.S. Open. You just need to hang around because anything can happen at the last three holes. . . . I'm definitely still in the ball game. I'm only five back and that's certainly doable on this golf course for sure.”
Woods will begin the day tied with Beau Hossler, a 17-year-old amateur who lapped the 14-time major champion by five strokes on Saturday in just his second Grand Slam start.
To put that in context, Hossler was born the year (1995) after Furyk played his first Open and was 8 years old when Furyk won the championship at Olympia Fields in Chicago.
The Open veteran was as steady, if not spectacular, as anyone on Day 1, rebounding from a bogey at the first hole with birdies at Nos. 7 and 11 and playing the par 5s (Nos. 16 and 17) in even par.
“On a golf course like this you have to go from spot to spot and it doesn't have to look or be fancy, it has to work,” said Furyk, who was paired with Woods on Saturday. “When I'm playing well, that's the kind of golf you play at a U.S. Open usually, especially at a place set up firm and fast like this.”
Atop the list of players that will be trying to run down the leaders would be Westwood, who has finished in the top 3 at two of the last four Opens and is putting like a man with something to prove, and Els, who was similarly solid on the greens on Saturday.
Ultimately, however, it will be U.S. Golf Association executive director Mike Davis and his staff that will decide if Olympic can finally score that show-stopper finish.
The general feeling is after Saturday’s break in the storm the USGA will go light on the watering and heavy with the hole locations for Sunday’s final turn, a concept McDowell called “Rory retribution” following McIlroy’s eight-stroke romp at Congressional last year.
The other concept is to go easy, like officials did on Saturday when birdies and bogeys came with almost equal abandon. “For the first time this week I actually enjoyed a round of golf,” McDowell admitted.
After four pedestrian finishes, the San Francisco faithful may finally be treated to an enjoyable finish.