Tiger Woods, five shots down with six holes to go in Saturday's third round, survived a painful knee and a wayward driver to fashion a spectacular finish and vote everyone else off the U.S. Open leaderboad. Woods had two eagles and a hole-out birdie in those last six holes to take a one shot lead going into tomorrow's final round.
Woods has led going into the final round of all 13 of his Majors wins. He is 54-3 lifetime when he is in the final group on Sunday.
Woods started the day just one shot behind Stuart Appleby, but doubled the 1st hole of the day. He was hardly alone in stumbling out of the starting blocks. Appleby acted like his putter was silly putty as he limped home with a 79.
One of the attractions of the U.S. Open for TV viewers is that it is easier to identify with what you see. At most tour events, the pros go "flag hunting," hitting lasers onto manicured greens, posting scores that are usually in the red by double digits.
Not on the weekend at the U.S. Open. We watch the world's best golfers act like muni players, studying each shot to see where the "bailout" side of the hole is. Instead of aiming for birdies, they try to take double-bogey out of play. The 3-foot putt that is a no-brainer on other weeks, suddenly looks like the 3-footer you booted to lose a $5 Nassau last week.
Saturday's leaderboard at Torrey Pines described the carnage as the number of players under par was reduced from 11 at the begining of the day to just three.
Weekends at the U.S. Open tend make the pros look like ex-basketball players turned bad golfers.
Woods was 3-over after just four holes, and made the turn in 2-over 38. He dropped another shot at #12, but then electrified the over 50,000 fans on the course, while also sending a message to every other golfer.
Woods hit his driver straight right on #13, a par five. His five-iron found the back edge of the green, where he drained a 65-footer for an eagle that elicited a roar from the crowd that shook windows in La Jolla.
Woods hadn't played a complete round of golf since his left knee was cut on in April until Thursday's first round. That knee obviously still painful, and causing Woods to not drive through the ball completely, and thus hit shots right. But thanks to his putter, along with some luck, Woods would finish birdie-eagle on 17 and 18 to take the lead.
Woods called his hole-out on 17 for a birdie "pure luck."
Woods admitted after the round that his knee was bothering him on almost every shot, and at 17 his aproach was right in the rough. His chip was too hard, but it took one bounce and slid right down the pin for a birdie.
Then on 18 Woods, knowing that he could not get a full turn on the ball, set up to slice both his drive and approach to the par 5. His 35-foot putt for eagle set off one more deafening roar and perhaps set up Woods to win his 14th Major.
Rocco Mediate was the star of the early going Saturday. The 45-year old was acting like he was just happy to be on the course, and was two under for the day standing in the 13th fairway. After watching Woods dramatic eagle, Mediate made a mental error on his approach shot, and ended up with a bogey, giving Woods a 3-shot swing on one hole.
After watching Tiger Woods eagle #13, Rocco Mediate went 4-over on the next four holes.
Woods will be matched tomorrow with perhaps one player in the field who can handle the pressure of playing in the final group with the #1 player in the world. Englishman Lee Westwood is a member of both the PGA and the European tours, and has performed well under pressure, as witness to his 14-8-3 Ryder Cup record.
Lee Westwood has only five bogies through the first three rounds of the U.S. Open.
Westwood has done exactly what you need to win the Open -- hit fairways and greens, and avoid trouble. He has 42 pars, seven birdies and only five bogies for his 54 holes.
Obviously, playing in the last group with Woods, with all the attendant noise and hoopla, will put maximum pressure on his game. Meanwhile Woods admits that his knee has gotten more sore with each day of the tournament. Even someone as mentally disciplined as Tiger Woods may have trouble blocking out the fact that any swing could bring pain enough to affect the shot.
It promises to be great theatre tomorrow.