PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) — No stranger to hoisting trophies at Pebble Beach, Dustin Johnson is giving himself a chance to pick up another one.
The winner of the last two AT&T National Pro-Ams, held at Pebble each year in February, took the lead Saturday at a much tougher tournament – the U.S. Open.
Johnson made an eagle on the drivable, par-4 fourth hole, then a birdie on No. 6 to tie Graeme McDowell. Then, on the signature par-3 seventh, playing at a teensy 99 yards downhill, Johnson nearly holed the tee shot. He made birdie while McDowell made par, and suddenly, Johnson, who turns 26 on Tuesday, was at 5-under, one shot ahead of the second-round leader.
It was a quick comeback. McDowell opened the day with two straight birdies to take a four-shot lead on Johnson. But he couldn’t capitalize on the par-4 fourth, which was playing at only 284 yards, or the par-5 sixth, which was playing as the easiest hole on the course.
All week, Johnson has acknowledged the differences between Pebble in February and Pebble in June, while also insisting that the course, the way it’s set up and the way he has to hit the ball, makes him comfortable during any season. He’s been playing that way all week. Were it not for a four-putt on the devilish par-5 14th back on Thursday, his lead might be even bigger.
Phil Mickelson opened the day looking like he might be McDowell’s biggest challenger, coming off a 5-under 66 that left him two shots off the lead.
But he opened with two straight bogeys, and things got worse from there. On No. 9, he caught the lip coming out of a fairway bunker and ended up with a lie in the deep grass for his third shot. He pushed that one right, across the hazard line on the hill overhanging the beach. Lefty played a right-handed shot from that spot and needed two more to get down. When it was over, he had recorded double bogey and was at 2 over, seven shots behind Johnson.
Along with Mickelson, Ernie Els and Ryo Ishikawa entered the day tied for second with Johnson. Els played the first eight holes at even par to stay 1 under and Ishikawa, the 18-year-old who shot a 58 in Japan earlier this year, was at even.
Tiger Woods, meanwhile, got on a roll and onto the leaderboard, making his sixth and seventh birdies of the day on Nos. 16 and 17 to get to even, and tied with Ishikawa for fourth.
With the leaders on the course, it was sunny and 59 degrees with gusts up to 20 mph at Pebble Beach for a round of golf that would end shortly before Saturday Night Live started on the East Coast.
They were treacherous conditions, even though there were some good scores dotted through the day.
Davis Love III, a two-time winner of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, went out in 5-under 30 en route to a 3-under 68 that left him at 4-over 217 for the tournament. He knew he would basically have to throw the traditional, conservative, U.S. Open game plan out the window for Sunday.
“You’ve got to play for birdies because I’m not going to win shooting even par tomorrow, for sure,” he said.
Tom Watson, the 60-year-old playing his fifth U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, also got in on the act until missing short putts over the final couple of holes. Watson still managed a 1-under 70 to complete three rounds in 6-over 219.
Watson warned that the greens, which he said makes a player feel like he’s “putting over a heard of turtles,” would get more difficult as the wind dried the course out in the afternoon.
“The backs of those turtles get higher and higher, and the winds will come up and it will dry out the lower parts of these greens,” he said. “It will get more bumpy. It’s always been the case here.”
Woods called the greens “awful” after his opening round Thursday, then drew some criticism from the USGA before he headed to the course for the third round.
“As far as the greens are concerned, he’s wrong,” USGA executive director David Fay said. “That old statement that you’re entitled to your opinion? He is entitled to his opinion, but he’s off on his facts. These putting surfaces have never been better.”
But the 10- and 12-footers that wouldn’t drop for him earlier in the week were dropping Saturday. He made one from that distance on No. 13, then again on 16 and 17. After a couple of bogeys to start the day, Woods made three straight birdies on Nos. 4, 5 and 6, as well.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s birdie on the par-3 seventh ended a drought of more than four hours without one on one of the world’s most picturesque and photographed hole. After hitting his lob wedge into the left rough en route to a bogey on the 99-yarder, Ian Poulter raised his hands in dismay and was picked up on the TV mike saying, “How on earth are you supposed to play to that?”
AP Golf Writer Doug Ferguson contributed to this report.