SAN FRANCISCO -- A day ago, this thing was so over. C'mon, you know you thought so. A resurgent, uber-confident Tiger Woods was tied for the halfway lead at the U.S. Open, having spent the first two rounds carving up the Olympic Club's Lake Course like a Sunday roast.
Who was going to beat him? Blake Adams? John Peterson? Trot out Bob Costas already and hand Tiger the trophy. Reinstate him as golf's Grand Emperor, send the volunteers home, and let the new champ enjoy his Father's Day back in Jupiter Island.
Um, somebody call rewrite.
On moving day at this 112th U.S. Open, Woods reverted to his old, nasty habits. A pulled tee shot here, a yanked putt there. When it was all over, he had carded an uh-oh-here-we-go-again 75 to fall into a tie for 14th place, five strokes behind the co-leaders, Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell.
From his opening tee shot on the bruising par-4 first -- a tug into the left rough -- Woods rarely exhibited the deft ball-striking and fluid shot-shaping that had defined his first two rounds on this tilting, twisting layout.
“I was missing [fairways] by just a few yards, and that was enough,” Woods said. “Probably about three fairways I missed by about three or four yards. And then that makes a big difference.”
Woods went on to bogey the opener and two more of the first six holes, a taxing stretch that on Saturday produced just 27 birdies against 143 bogeys or worse. More shabby tee shots plagued Woods on the back nine, including a chunky stinger-gone-wrong 2-iron at the par-4 14th.
"That tells me he's getting very, very steep," Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open winner, remarked on ESPN Radio. "I think he's overthinking it."
Woods's miscues opened the gates for an army of other contenders, led by McDowell (68) and Furyk (70), two former U.S. Open champions who thrive on tough, slick courses. McDowell parred the first eight holes, then made a gritty bogey after a poor tee shot at the 434-yard, par-4 ninth.
“I had a big flare in the right trees there and made a bit of a Tarzan 5,” he said. “And that kind of woke me up a little bit.”
McDowell proceeded to play the back nine in 33, thanks to birdies at 10, 13 and 18, the last of which drew a roar that seemed to shake Olympic’s stucco clubhouse to its very foundations. “I've got great support out here in San Francisco,” said McDowell, who hails from Portrush, Northern Ireland. “There might be more Irish men out here than there are in Ireland.”
Two years ago McDowell won the U.S. Open just up the coast at Pebble Beach, but that emboldening experience didn’t seem to do much for his nerves this week. He said that before Saturday’s round, he was “scared of going out there and messing up.” A heart-to-heart with his caddie, Ken Comboy, and his management team helped settle him.
“I guess just talking to my team and just realizing that there's probably 71 other guys feeling the same way and 84 guys already have messed it up,” McDowell said. “It puts it in perspective a little bit.”
Furyk, 42, played alongside Woods. He opened with a bogey and made another at the par-4 fifth. Rattled neither by the bogeys nor the mass of humanity trailing his pairing, he tried to drive the green at the par-4 seventh. Furyk's ball found the right greenside bunker, but he got it up and in for the first of his three birdies.
“You can really get caught up in playing with [Woods], just from the amount of media, from the amount of attention, cameras,” Furyk said. “He had to lay it up on 1, and the crowd is yelling, ‘Take advantage of it, Jimmy! Try to get ahead of him!’ And you have to realize that you're not -- I wasn't playing Tiger Woods today. I was playing against the golf course, trying to fire a number.”
Furyk will chase another number when he goes off in the final pairing with McDowell at 3:10 p.m. PST Sunday. The similarities between the players are not lost on Furyk.
“I think we have styles of games where we put the ball into play, we put the ball on the green and take our chance at the putt and then move on,” he said. “That’s the kind of golf you play at a U.S. Open usually, especially at a place set up firm and fast like this.”
Two shots behind McDowell and Furyk, at one over for the championship, is Fredrik Jacobson. The Swede shot 68 Saturday, highlighted by three straight birdies on 7, 8 and 9.
As Woods and Furyk tacked their way around the treacherous Lake Course, roars reverberated throughout the grounds. At times, it sounded more like Sunday at the Masters than Saturday at the U.S. Open. Lee Westwood, the only player from the glitzy Westwood-Rory McIlroy-Luke Donald group to survive the cut, propelled himself back into the conversation with a five-birdie 67, which matched the low round of the day with Casey Wittenberg. Westwood is three off the lead, along with Ernie Els (68), Blake Adams (70), and Nicolas Colsaerts (71) of Belgium.
"The goal was to actually shoot 67," Westwood said. "So I'm pleased with that, and I reset a new number for tomorrow."
Westwood has four top-10 finishes at the U.S. Open, including a T3 finish last year at Congressional, but he is still seeking his first major title. "The main thing is just to go out there and believe that I'm good enough,” he said. “I must be. I keep getting myself in contention."
Els has been in contention in his share of U.S. Opens -- he's won two, in 1994 and '97 -- and the dramatic way he responded to three early bogeys in the third round is likely to rank among his fondest Open memories. A chip-in for eagle on the par-5 17th pulled him back into the tournament.
"To come back and play the last 12 holes in five under is quite amazing," Els said. "And obviously the shot on 17 is what dreams are made of, a shot like that in a U.S. Open. I'm really pleased."
Other dreams were made, or extended, under big, blue California skies on Saturday. Beau Hossler, the 17-year-old amateur from Southern California, continued his magical run, firing an even-par 70, which kept him at three-over for the week, just four behind the leaders.
John Peterson, a 23-year-old sectional qualifier, who played in the penultimate pairing with fellow LSU Tiger David Toms, jarred his tee shot at the 180-yard par-3 13th. When the ball dropped for his first-ever ace, Peterson leapt about as if he had just won the lottery.
"When it went in, man, I don't know what I did, I want to watch the replay,” he said. “I hope y’all have a replay so I can see it again. But I went nuts. I know that. I tried chest bump my caddie and I missed, and I think I hit his head. But it was really, really cool."
On a different par 3 -- the 188-yard eighth hole -- Woods wasn’t quite so giddy. His tee shot found the green, 30 feet above the hole. But when Woods couldn’t get down in two putts, pulling a three-footer for his par, the massive gallery surrounding the hole let out a thunderous groan. Woods wasn’t pleased either, shooting the cup a quick stink-eye before turning his back and strolling to the ninth tee.
“I struggled on the greens today, quite a bit,” Woods said after his round. “They looked quick, but they putted slow.”
Woods said he was planning to spend time on the practice green after his round, but all parts of his game will need to be sharper if he is to mount a Sunday charge.
“You know, I look at the leaderboard, and I see Tiger's name,” McDowell said. “But I see other great names there, as well -- Lee Westwood and David Toms and guys who know how to get the job done.
“I'm sure Tiger believes he has a chance going out tomorrow, as do other players.”
Of course believing and doing are two very different things.