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Saturday, June 19, 2010

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Johnson Grabs The Lead, Tiger Makes His Move

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By David Shefter, USGA

Pebble Beach, Calif. - Dustin Johnson might be from Myrtle Beach, but the way the 25-year-old has played on the Monterey Peninsula, his hometown should be Pebble Beach.

Well, at least the picturesque golf course associated with this gorgeous seaside community.

The winner of the last two AT&T National Pro-Ams held at Pebble Beach Golf Links, Johnson now is poised to claim his first major on the 7,040-yard layout.

Affectionately described as "stupid long" by the not-so-short Tiger Woods, Johnson fashioned a brilliant 5-under-par 66 for a three-shot lead through 54 holes of the 2010 U.S. Open.

"I don't know. The first time I walked out here I loved the place," said Johnson, a member of the victorious 2007 USA Walker Cup Team. "And I really enjoy playing golf here. You couldn't ask for a more beautiful place."

But as the South Carolina native prepares for the most important final round of his young career, several luminaries lurk in his rear-view mirror, including the aforementioned Woods, gunning for a record-tying fourth U.S. Open, two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els and reigning Masters champion Phil Mickelson, looking for that elusive first U.S. Open title.

Johnson, however, won't have to play alongside any of those stalwarts on Sunday. As in Saturday's third round, he'll be paired with Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell, the 36-hole leader who carded an even-par 71 for a 3-under-par 210 total. Frenchman Gregory Havret, a three-time winner on the European Tour, shares fourth place with Els at even par after shooting a 2-under 69.

"I'm going to have to be really patient," said Johnson, who ranks second in driving distance on the PGA Tour, at 303 yards. "If I keep hitting like I've been hitting and putting it in the [proper] spots on the green, then I'm going to be tough to beat."

Looking completely relaxed the entire day, the easy-going Johnson took advantage of the forward tee markers at the par-4 fourth, using an iron to reach the green and holing a 6-footer for eagle. That putt got him within one stroke of McDowell and the two virtually matched each other until Johnson fattened his advantage with birdies at 17 and 18, the latter when he reached the par-5 hole in two shots.

"Yeah, he was awesome today," said McDowell of Johnson's performance. "He really just stood up and had no fear. He hit a 3-iron from 290 yards on four, which was pretty incredible.

"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. But Sunday in a major, I'm happy to be in the position I'm in."

Woods, meanwhile, put himself in position, giving moving day and the East Coast prime-time television audience some sizzle with a 15-hole stretch that was reminiscent of his record 2000 Open performance when he won by 15 at Pebble Beach. Undeterred by two early bogeys, Woods collected eight birdies, including the final three holes, to match this championship's low round of 66.

How good was shooting 66 at Pebble on Saturday? Well, 28 golfers of the 83 playing the weekend shot 77 or worse, including nine in the 80s.

Woods' eight birdies were five more than he posted on Friday; he didn't have a birdie in the first round.

"It's a process," said Woods, owner of 14 major titles and nine USGA championships. "You have to just build. 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."

Woods definitely did that on the inward nine, shooting 5-under 31. He birdied 11, 13, 16, 17 and 18. He knocked a 3-wood approach from 260 yards around a tree at the par-5 18th to 20 feet where he left his eagle try just short.

"The last time I really played that well was at Augusta," said Woods, who finished fourth at the Masters in his first competitive event since his automobile crash over Thanksgiving weekend. "And even then I was struggling."

Through 36 holes, many had counted Woods out. But most people know that Woods can strike at any moment.

Now the question remains: Can he win a major coming from behind?

Or will Mickelson finally shed his U.S. Open bridesmaid label? A runner-up a record five times, the left-hander will have to produce a record seven-shot comeback, one only matched by Arnold Palmer 50 years ago at Cherry Hills Country Club when he shot a final-round 65, to win his only U.S. Open.

After his 66 on Friday moved him within two shots of the lead, Mickelson began the third round with consecutive bogeys. Yet he failed to take advantage of holes three and four, where the markers were moved up, and birdied only three holes: five, 11 and 16. His tee shot at the par-5 18th landed in the rocks below the fairway.

Following a drop, Mickelson managed to knock an iron approach from 220 yards onto the green for a remarkable two-putt par.

"I didn't probably strike it as great as I did yesterday," said Mickelson, who turned 40 this past Wednesday. "[But] Sunday at the Open a lot of things can happen. I'll be off with the leaders, and I need to get hot in those first seven holes that you can make birdies. You can make up a lot of ground if you make birdies Sunday at the U.S. Open. It will be challenging to make up that many shots.

"I didn't expect to be that far behind, but Dustin and Graeme have played exceptional golf."

Ditto for Els, who is looking to join an elite group of golfers with three Open victories, including Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Bob Jones, Willie Anderson and Hale Irwin. The 40-year-old South African will play alongside Mickelson in the third-to-last pairing; McDowell and Johnson go off last followed by Woods and Havret.

"I need to play a good round of golf," said Els, owner of two PGA Tour victories this year. "I need to play a steady round of golf. I need to make some birdies early on and try to have a good finish. I think the finish is going to be tough for the leaders tomorrow, for anybody."

David Shefter is a USGA communications staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at dshefter@usga.org.


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