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Saturday, June 19, 2010

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Tiger Makes A Run

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By Dave Shedloski

Pebble Beach, Calif. - A guy popped up on the leaderboard Saturday at the U.S. Open who looked just like Tiger Woods.

He walked with more purpose and a bounce in his stride, like Tiger Woods. He smiled like Tiger Woods. He roared like Tiger Woods. He hit shots and made putts like Tiger Woods. He pumped his fist like Tiger Woods.

He put himself right in the thick of another major, just like Tiger Woods.

Not ready to surrender his No. 1 ranking or capitulate to a more ornery Pebble Beach than the one he manhandled 10 years ago, Woods threw a haymaker at the field in the 110th U.S. Open with a 5-under-par 66 that was as spectacular as it was stunning.

"I've been saying all week that it's a process. I put it together today," Woods said after shooting his lowest round of the year - a year that has been strange and sad and unsettling for him and for the golf world at large. "I hit shots the way I know I can hit shots."

Woods, 34, hadn't seemed like himself through the first 36 holes of this championship, spraying shots, complaining about the small bumpy greens and walking with a heavy gait and sullen expression. That his game clearly appeared off kilter - and barely resembled the masterful level he displayed in shooting 12-under and winning by a record 15 shots here in 2000 - was the source of his discontent.

That he began the third round continuing to struggle and throw away strokes only made his charge all the more surprising. And when would a great round by Woods in a major ever have been surprising before?

An inexplicable bogey at the short par-4 third hole, his second in a row, had Woods muttering to himself, and dropped him nine shots behind 36-hole leader Graeme McDowell. Woods had driven into the fairway just 30 yards short of the green, but then he flopped his second over the green, chipped to 10 feet and missed.

He must have been scolding himself.

"Not exactly the greatest of starts. … I just tried to make sure I got to even par by the turn for my round," Woods said. "I was trying to make sure that I was focused on the next shot. I kept telling myself, there's going to be a roping 2-iron or a cut 3-wood. Just make sure I had those two options in my head. And that's what I just kept telling myself as I walked off that hole."

In other words, he didn't panic or get ahead of himself or abandon his game plan. And the next thing you know, he birdied three holes in a row. In fact, he birdied eight of his last 15 holes; that's the most red numbers the three-time U.S. Open champion had ever recorded in a single round in this championship.

Of course, the fists soon started flying, the first in response to a 10-foot par save at the long par-4 10th after he had given back a shot at No. 8. Soon Woods brought fists of fury, delivering one after a 12-foot birdie at 16 and another at the 17th when he curled in a 15-footer after a solid 5-iron.

Riding the momentum and feeding off the electricity crackling through an animated gallery, Woods ripped a cut 3-wood from 260 yards around the two fairway trees onto the 18th green to set up a 20-foot eagle try. As he followed the flight of the ball, he bent down and peered into the sun, and then let out a yell as he high-fived caddie Steve Williams.

Two putts for the kind of easy birdie he hadn't enjoyed much this season, and Woods had completed a rally that lifted him 22 notches, into third place, at 1-under 212.

He'll begin the final round five shots behind Dustin Johnson, who powered his way to his own scintillating 66, but the key for Woods is that he cleared a path to the top and put a lot of contenders, including Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, behind him. Only Graeme McDowell at 3-under 210 stands between Woods and the leader.

A rally from five behind is the third largest in U.S. Open history, accomplished on three occasions, most recently by Lee Janzen in 1998 just up the road at Olympic Club in San Francisco.

Here it should be noted that Woods has never come from behind to win any of his 14 major titles, and he came up short again earlier this year at the Masters in his season debut. But previous trends mean little compared to the momentum he conjured on a brilliant day astride the Pacific.

"It does feel good to play this well going into a final round, and I put myself back in the tournament," Woods said. "It would feel good [to win]. I've won U.S. Opens before and it certainly didn't feel bad. But I have 18 more holes and you've got to be ready to play. I'm going to have to put together another good round tomorrow in order to win this."

Before Saturday you might have been inclined to say that Tiger Woods just didn't have it in him, with so little tournament time this year, so many questions about his life, so many doubts about his swing.

But that was all before he started acting like Tiger Woods again.

Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA Web sites.


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