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 line.
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.
“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 hand.
“I think I’m going to feel good,” he said.
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 long.”
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 lead.
“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 ahead.
“But anything can happen on Sunday,” Mickelson said. “And if you make a move, you can make up a lot of ground.”
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 hole.
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 birdie range.
“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 did.”
Even so, history is working against him.
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 birdie.
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 tomorrow morning. If he turns up tomorrow like he did today, he’s going to be tough to beat.”