PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Amid a flurry of missed putts and so-so shotmaking for the first two rounds of the U.S. Open, Tiger Woods finally reminded everyone Saturday what he’s capable of doing when the spotlight is at its brightest.
The question is, is he too far behind the guy to whom he admiringly referred as “stupid long” going into today’s final round at Pebble Beach Golf Links to finish the deal?
Woods showed the form that won him three previous U.S. Opens, including his victory by 15 strokes here in 2000. He blistered the scenic seaside course for five birdies on the back nine to close with a 5-under-par 66 and vault into third place at 1-under 212.
But long-hitting Dustin Johnson, who at 25 has little experience dealing with the pressure of contending in a major championship, coolly posted a 66 of his own as he finished in the twilight for a 207 total and the lead after 54 holes.
Johnson, the winner of the last two AT&T Pro-Am events at this venue, kick-started his round by driving the green at the 284-yard fourth hole and sinking a 10-foot putt for eagle.
After a tee shot of over 320 yards at the 18th, Johnson reached the par-5 in two and two-putted for a birdie to grab a 3-stroke advantage over Graeme McDowell, the 36-hole leader, and a 5-shot margin over Woods.
The 30-year-old McDowell was tied for first going into 17, but bogeyed while Johnson birdied, and carded a 71 for 209.
Gregory Havret of France shot 69 and held fourth place at 213. Phil Mickelson, who sparkled Friday with a 66, could manage only a 73 and stood in a fifth-place tie at 214 with Ernie Els, the two-time Open champion, who fired a 72.
The day for Woods, playing in only his fifth event of 2010 after dealing with personal issues, was reminiscent of the back nine of his third round in 2008 at Torrey Pines down the California coast, when he converted two eagles and a chip-in birdie, and eventually won in a playoff.
After two bogeys on his first three holes, Woods played the final 15 holes in 7-under par to rise up from a tie for 25th at the start of the day to third.
“It’s a process; you have to just build,” Woods said. “All the Opens that I’ve won, I’ve had one stretch of nine holes. It doesn’t have to be on a back nine or a front nine, just a nine-hole stretch where you put it together. I got myself back in the championship with those nine holes, (like) at Torrey Pines as well.”
Woods, 34, said his long-term goal Saturday was to finish at even par for the tournament on his back nine. He achieved his mission thanks to birdies on the last three holes.
At 18, with a tree in the fairway somewhat obscuring his view of the green, he rocketed a 3-wood from 260 yards to within 20 feet of the hole. He two-putted for birdie to finish the day as one of three players in red numbers after 54 holes.
But Johnson, whom Woods described as “stupid long” following a practice round with him Monday, stole the star’s thunder with terrific play. Despite the challenging course conditions, he consistently grabbed the driver out of his bag and whaled away.
He broke open a close duel with McDowell thanks to the 2-shot swing at 17, then at 18 gained an extra shot on Woods, who has 14 major championships in his career but hasn’t won any of them coming from behind.
“I love playing here,” Johnson said. “I hit a couple of loose drive on the back, but I held it together. Nothing is going to change with my game plan (Sunday). I’m driving it real straight so I’m very confident with the driver. I’m going to hit it.”
Johnson tied for 10th in last year’s PGA but does not have a placing of better than 30th in the six majors he has played in his career prior to this week.
Mickelson, who has five runner-up finishes in the Open without a win, sputtered to bogeys on his first two holes, and double bogeyed the ninth. He started the day in a tie with Johnson and three others for second, but now is seven back.