PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Forget fist pumps. When Tiger Woods watched his putt on No. 17 roll in – a putt he later admitted was “a joke” – he raised his right arm and extended his index finger high in the air.
Who knows? Maybe he can still get there this week after a remarkable round of U.S. Open golf Saturday at Pebble Beach.
Woods shot 5-under 31 on the back nine to post a 5-under 66 for the day and vault from also-ran to big-time contender. He was at 1-under 212 for the tournament, alone in third place, five shots behind leader Dustin Johnson with only one player, Graeme McDowell, in between.
The 66 was Woods’ best score since returning to tournament golf following his uncomfortable winter on the sideline. The putts, on greens he ridiculed as “awful” on Thursday, finally started falling, and he started converting on a swing that suddenly rounded into form.
“It’s a process,” Woods said. “You have to just build. All the Opens I’ve won, I’ve had one stretch of nine holes where I put it together.”
It’s a testament to his game that he chose the back nine to do it at Pebble – the tougher nine, and the nine the leaders were playing with bright sunshine and brisk winds drying out the course and making the greens bumpy.
The highlight of Woods’ round will go down as his second shot on No. 18. Squirreled behind one of the two huge trees on the right side of the fairway, his caddie, Steve Williams, told him he was 260 yards away – the perfect distance to go for it. He crushed a 3-wood, hustled to his left, yelled at the ball, ‘C’mon, C,mon,’ then watched it land 15 feet from the pin.
A two-putt for a birdie and a round of 66 – only one stroke higher than the 65 he shot on opening day at Pebble in 2000, when he was a different player and he went on to win by a record 15 shots.
On this day, though, memories of Torrey Pines – where he won his last major – were more apropos. Two years ago at the U.S. Open, he was injured, trying to turn a good Saturday into something better when he hit a chip shot from the side of the 17th green that came out of the rough hot, bounced once and somehow went in. He took his hat off, covered his face, laughed sheepishly. Didn’t mean that to happen. But sometimes it does.
Sort of like his putt on No. 17 at Pebble. Above the hole, 15 feet away, Woods said the only goal there was “don’t throw away a great round now.”
“The putt on 17 was a joke,” he said. “I’m just trying to get it close and walk out of there. And it happened to go in.”
It’s putts like those that can turn players into believers, though Woods never stopped believing, even when others might have.
His spiel after Friday’s round, when he was seven strokes out of the lead, buried in 25th, sounded more canned than condensed soup: He was close, just needed to make a birdie or two, get to par and anything could happen at a U.S. Open. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
He looked like nothing more than a dreamer after the second and third holes of Saturday’s round. A pair of bogeys. The worse one came on No. 3, when he drove the ball to 40 yards in front of the green, then tried to get a flop shot to lock up on the top right corner of the green – one of the many at Pebble that Tom Watson said made players feel like they were “putting over a herd of turtles.”
The shot ran off the green, into the rough. The bogey ballooned Woods to 6-over par, nine shots behind a leader who hadn’t even hit the course yet.
Eight birdies (and one more bogey) later, it was a different story. Woods had moved 22 spots up the leaderboard. He looked like a genius. What’s new?
And for all the drama and trauma he got himself into over the past few months, he showed his game hasn’t gone too far away. He still has never come from behind on the last day of a major to win. That’s a big hurdle to overcome. But the thought of him winning major No. 15 this week certainly doesn’t seem like such a stretch anymore, either.
“Well, I’ve got a long way to go before that happens,” he said. “It would feel good. I’ve won U.S. Opens before and it certainly didn’t feel bad.”