US OPEN: TIGER WOODS SURGES AS DUSTIN JOHNSON LEADS
Woods evoked scenes reminiscent of his last major win at the 2008 US Open
By Rob Hodgetts
Tiger Woods roared back into contention in the US Open with a scintillating third-round 66 at Pebble Beach to set up the chance for a 15th major title.
The world number one will go into Sunday's final round five shots behind Dustin Johnson and two adrift of Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell.
Johnson leads at six under after also carding 66 as overnight leader McDowell leaked two late bogeys in a 71.
Gregory Havret and Ernie Els are level with Phil Mickelson one over.
The 25-year-old Johnson has won the last two PGA Tour events at Pebble Beach and maintained his impressive form on California's Monterey Peninsula as he went head-to-head with McDowell for much of the third day.
The American edged in front for the first time after a birdie on the seventh but the pair traded top spot coming home before Johnson sealed the lead with two closing birdies to the European's bogeys at 16 and 17.
Johnson is a Pebble Beach specialist with two wins at the California course
“I love playing here,” said Johnson. “Today was a good day. I hit the ball well and made a few putts coming down the stretch.”
McDowell, who won his fifth European Tour event earlier this month, kept his nerve to remain very much in the hunt for a maiden major title.
“I shot 71 not being in control of my game and I've got to be pretty happy with that. It's going to be a fun day on Sunday,” he said.
But an utterly absorbing third round will be remembered as the day Woods finally reignited his career following the recent scandal in his private life.
The 34-year-old spent five months out of the game when his actions became public and though he finished fourth at the Masters on his reappearance in April, results since have been lacklustre as he struggled to deal with the fall-out from the scandal.
Woods has never won a major when trailing going into the final day but his display over Pebble Beach's notoriously difficult back nine on Saturday suggests he is in the mood to clinch a fourth US Open and a first major title since winning the US Open at Torrey Pines in 2008.
Woods, who won the previous US Open at Pebble Beach by a record 15 shots in 2000, carded a birdieless 74 in his opening round and afterwards branded the greens “awful” before improving with a 72 in the second round.
He was tied for 25th at four over par going into Saturday with seven shots to make up on McDowell, and after bogeys at the second and third his challenge was losing steam. But the American hit back with three straight birdies from the fourth and narrowly missed another on the seventh to regain the momentum.
Going into the supposedly more difficult back nine, Woods made further birdies on the 11th, 13th and 16th and then drained a long putt on 17, pumping his fist in celebration to roars from the crowd in scenes reminiscent of his famous Torrey Pines victory.
On the par-five 18th, Woods drove his ball behind a tree but cut a three-wood around the branches, screaming “Come on” and then “yes” as the ball raced up into the heart of the green.
But he left the eagle putt short and had to settle for a birdie to end the day with the joint best round of the week so far after Mickelson's 66 on Friday and Johnson's score in the final group.
“All the US Opens – all the ones that I've won, you have to have a nice stretch of nine holes, and that's what I did today,” said Woods, who also won the US Open at Bethpage in 2002.
“Everyone was just so excited and fired up that it was just a great atmosphere to play in front of.
“Today I hit shots the way I know I can hit shots. The putt on 17 was a joke. I'm just trying to get it close and walk out of there. And it happened to go in.
“You have to stay patient in US Opens. This is like no other tournament. I played myself back into the tournament which was the intent. I was trying to get back to even par and I went one better.”
France's Havret quietly climbed into contention with a 69 and will play with Woods on Sunday, while South Africa's Els fell back with a bogey on 17 to end with a 72 and a share of fourth.
The 40-year-old Els, who won the US Open in 1994 and 1997 and finished runner-up to final-round playing partner Woods in 2000, is enjoying a resurgence after several poor years following a knee injury and has won twice on the PGA Tour this year.
The South African has admitted he was overawed by Woods in his pomp but he fought well to stay in touch on Saturday afternoon and a first major win since the 2002 Open Championship with an in-form Woods in the field would go some way to making amends.
Masters champion Mickelson was not as fluent as on Friday and was forced to keep battling to the end after driving into the water on the 18th as he ended with a 73.
“I fought hard,” said Mickelson, who will play with Els in the final round. “I didn't strike it as well as I did yesterday and I didn't have as easy a round as yesterday. I had some big up and downs and a couple of putts that went in at the end which was great and keeps me in touch.”
Despite being seven shots adrift, the four-time major champion insists he still has a chance of winning a first US Open title after a record five runner-up finishes, including at Bethpage last year.
“It's going to be difficult but in the US Open if you get hot and make a couple of birdies early you can make up a lot of ground,” he said. “I've played a lot with Dustin and am very impressed with his game and wouldn't expect him to struggle, but you never know.”
American veteran Tom Watson, the 1982 champion at Pebble Beach, carded a one-under 70 to inch to six over in what could be the 60-year-old eight-time major winner's final US Open.
England's world number three Lee Westwood plummeted down the leaderboard after hitting two bogeys and a double bogey in a 76 to end eight over, while countryman Paul Casey, the world number nine, took 77 to end six over and Ian Poulter, ranked eighth, dropped five shots on his back nine in a 77 for seven over.
Ireland's three-time major champion Padraig Harrington is also seven over after a 74 with Spain's Sergio Garcia nine over after a 73. England's Ross McGowan is 10 over, Northern Ireland's Gareth Maybin is 12 over, Welshman Rhys Davies is 14 over and England's Matthew Richardson 15 over.