SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF. - Just when it appeared Tiger Woods had his swing down pat, it took a bit of a vacation. So did his putting stroke.
Meanwhile, the guy with the looping swing that looks like it came straight from the ninth flight of your local men’s club championship has put himself in position to win his second major. So has a Northern Irishman, who will be looking to win a third consecutive U.S. Open for his country.
Just like The Olympic Club, however, it won’t be easy for Jim Furyk or Graeme McDowell.
Furyk, a 42-year-old from Pennsylvania whose only major victory was at the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields near Chicago, is tied for the 54-hole lead with Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, who won at Pebble Beach two years ago.
A star-studded cast will be chasing them. Lee Westwood, ranked No. 3 in the world, is three shots back, as is someone you might remember, Ernie Els. Oh, and Woods is still technically in the picture at 4 over, which is always enough to shave a few minutes off any leader’s sleep.
Furyk, Woods and David Toms had the lead at 1 under going into the day, but Toms tumbled down the leaderboard with a 76. Sweden’s Fredrik Jacobson, who tied for 14th last year at Congressional, is all alone in third at 1 over after a 68.
McDowell and Furyk did on Saturday what they both complimented each other about on Friday. They were patient. McDowell made eight straight pars, bogeyed the ninth and then fired three birdies on the back nine, including a four-footer on 18. Furyk was 2 over through five, but he never fell completely out of the lead. He bogeyed 16 but bounced right back with a birdie on 17 and signed for a 70.
If either one can be as consistent and patient as they were on Sunday, they will be difficult to catch on a course that can be devastating. One female spectator on Saturday, noticing the throng of close to 35,000 people around her, said to her companion: “It’s like we’re in Disneyland!” That may be true if you’re talking about the crowds, but not about the enjoyment level. The only way Olympic can be compared to Disney is because more than a few people feel like tossing their cookies.
The tension, not to mention the rock hard greens that made making long putts next to impossible, got to more than a few golfers on moving day — especially Woods.
It was Tiger’s tournament to lose going into the third round, and he began that process quite well by bogeying the first, third, sixth and eighth holes. He wedge play was atrocious, and his putting stroke was nearly as bad. The frustration that had been common the last couple of years returned. There was a club toss on the 16th, which he bogeyed, and plenty of body language that was unable to get shots going where he wanted.
He flubbed his chip on 18, made bogey and shot 75. Only eight players were worse on Saturday.
On the other side of the coin was Els, whose second U.S. Open win was 15 years ago. He had fallen off the proverbial leaderboard in recent years, missing the cut in three of last year’s four majors and not even being eligible for this year’s Masters.
Els was 7 over for the tournament standing on the seventh tee Saturday, but he played the last 11 holes 5 under par. That included a chip-in for eagle on the par-5 17th that resulted in a 2-under 68. Els’ best major result since 2007 is a tie for third at the 2010 U.S. Open, held just down the road at Pebble Beach. Even though he hasn’t been winning a lot lately, he has one thing on his side.
“Experience helps around here,” he said. “For some reason I’m patient again this week, and that’s been kind of my virtue in major championship golf has been the ability to be patient and wait it out.”
Westwood, the best player never to have won a major, rolled in a 40-foot putt for birdie on the 18th to card a 67, which tied for the low round of the day. Westwood has never been able to close the deal. Maybe it’s finally time.
“I’ve probably been this contention in major championships more than anybody else over the last three or four years,” Westwood said. “So I’m looking forward to tomorrow and hopefully going to go out and have some fun and see what happens.”