PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Gary Woodland hit a shank and a chunk and both times made par, and he made a birdie from a deep divot in the fairway. Such moments, even on a Saturday, can go a long way toward winning a U.S. Open.
Even better for Woodland was a 2-under-par 69 – and just two bogeys over 54 holes at Pebble Beach – for a one-shot lead over Justin Rose.
“I worked for this my whole life,” Woodland said. “I know what it takes to win. And my game is in a great spot. I’m at a beautiful golf course. I came here to win, and that’s what we’re going out to do tomorrow.”
He’s not alone in that thinking.
Rose was right where he wanted to be after working more short-game magic from bunkers and thick grass and awkward spots around greens that were getting a little firmer and faster, even under another day of thick marine layer that has blanketed the Monterey Peninsula all week. He has 34 one-putt greens through 54 holes, the last one an up-and-down from the bunker for birdie on the par-5 18th for a 68 that put him in the final group.
“One back gives me the freedom to feel like I’ve got everything to gain, nothing to lose,” said Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champion at Merion. “I’m not chasing, really. I’m so close to Gary that I have to go out and play my game tomorrow.”
Brooks Koepka thinks he can win because no one has been winning majors like him in the last two years. He played bogey-free for a 68, settling for par when he made a bold attempt to slash a fairway metal around a cypress on the 18th hole. Four shots behind is close enough for Koepka to have a shot at a record that has stood for 114 years as he tries to join Willie Anderson with a third straight U.S. Open title.
“I feel as confident as ever right now,” said Koepka, words that carry a little more weight from a guy who has won four of his last eight majors.
Standing in the way of all of them is Pebble Beach, a strong enough test that has been missing strong wind, its best defense.
The final hour of the third round gave a glimpse of possibilities, how fortunes can change quickly.
Woodland twice looked as though he were about to lose two shots or more of his lead until chipping in from 35 feet on the par-3 12th hole, and holing a par putt from just over 40 feet on the par-5 14th.
“I’m excited to be where I’m at right now,” Woodland said.
He was at 11-under 202 and with hardly any margin for error against Rose.
Koepka had some theatrics of his own, misjudging a lie in the rough so deep he could barely see the golf ball left of the 15th green. It sailed long into the first cut, some 35 feet away, and he holed the putt for par to keep a clean card.
He was part of a group four shots back that included Louis Oosthuizen, who birdied three of his last four holes to salvage a 70; and Chez Reavie, who made his share of long par putts for a 68.
Koepka won at Erin Hills in 2017 with his power and at Shinnecock Hills last year with his clutch putting. He might need a little of both to make up a four-shot deficit at Pebble Beach, though he brings the most recent experience handling the pressure of a final round in a major. He is going for his fifth major title in his last nine tries, a stretch not seen since Tiger Woods at his peak.
“I just enjoy the pressure,” Koepka said. “I enjoy having to hit a good golf shot, making a putt when the pressure is on. If you’re within three on the back nine, anything can happen. Hang around all day and see what happens.”
Curtis Strange, the last player with a shot at three straight U.S. Opens, also shot 68 in the third round in 1990 and got within two shots, only to fade with a 75 on the final day.
Rory McIlroy didn’t get enough out of how well he hit the ball and had to settle for a 70, leaving him five shots behind.
As for Woods, he joined a list of big names that went the wrong direction. Woods had a 71 and was 11 shots behind. Dustin Johnson also had a 71 and was nine back. Phil Mickelson saw his career Grand Slam hopes vanish at sea when he hit driver in the Pacific on the 18th hole and made triple bogey for a 75.
Woodland, who led by two to start the third round, stretched it to as many as four shots when Rose shanked a bunker shot from in front of the par-3 fifth green, and Woodland followed with a 10-foot birdie putt on the par-5 sixth.
That ended with a two-shot swing on the tough eighth hole, where Rose birdied from 10 feet and Woodland took three putts from the back of the green, ending his amazing streak of 34 straight holes without a bogey.
And then came his biggest two shots, both for par.
Woodland thought his tee shot on the 12th was pure, even twirling his club as it descended. It came up short and in a nasty in the wispy, shin-high grass. Gripping the club at the shaft, he shanked it to the right into light rough. With Rose inside 10 feet for birdie, it looked like a two-shot swing at the least.
And then Woodland holed it, slamming his fist, a rare show of emotion for one of golf’s coolest customers.
“I was trying to avoid the big number,” Woodland said. “Take your medicine and move on. Nice that it went in.”
Ditto for the par-5 14th, where he got out of position off the tee. The thick grass right of the fairway grabbed his club and sent his second shot into more rough so deep that he can to play short of the green. Then, he hit his wedge too short and was lucky it stayed on the top shelf instead of rolling back to the fairway.
From there, he smiled when his 40-foot par putt went into the center of the cup.
Woodland, who played a year of college basketball and was part of a traveling baseball team in high school, has learned to control his emotions in golf. Adrenaline works better when he’s on a fast break, not when he’s chipping in.
Emotions could be big Sunday for all of them, especially on Father’s Day. Woodland’s son is about to turn 2. He is home in Florida with his mother, who is a few months away from delivering twins.
Prugh under par again
Spokane’s Alex Prugh shot a 1-under 70, moving him to 1 over for the week. It was the Ferris grad’s second straight round under par after shooting a 69 on Friday to make the cut on the number.
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