OAKMONT, Pa. (AP) — When the U.S. Open leaders kept finding ways to give away strokes instead of picking them up, someone had to benefit. They should have known better with Tiger Woods hanging so close.
Woods, five shots down going into Saturday’s third round, began making the move that’s been anticipated since the tournament began. Woods put together birdies on No. 3 and 4 to get to 3 over for the tournament and was tied for the lead with Niclas Fasth of Sweden, Aaron Baddeley of Australia and Angel Cabrera of Argentina atop a leaderboard that was anything but all American.
Woods was through 15 holes, while Fasth and Baddeley were through 11 and Cabrera 10.
Cabrera held a one-shot lead at the turn, thanks in part to a rookie-like mistake by big hitter Bubba Watson, but the Argentine had three bogeys in a five-hole span starting at No. 6 to tumble from sole possession of the lead.
Watson, the longest hitter on the PGA Tour, went up by a shot by dropping a long birdie putt at the par-4 No. 7. But Watson, who hasn’t won anywhere but the Hooters Tour in four years, took a ghastly and probably unnecessary 7 at the par-4 No. 9 by needing five shots to get down from about 60 feet.
Watson had a difficult pitch from some scruffy, thick rough at the left of the green, but couldn’t get the ball out and left it in the thick rough near the fringe.
Instead of taking his time and regaining his composure, Watson rushed up and hit his wedge all the way to the fringe on the other side of the green — much farther from the hole than he was on his initial pitch.
Those five shots on or around the green added up to a triple bogey when he looked to be in position to par, and he went from a one-shot lead to a two-stroke deficit.
Woods, a two-time U.S. Open champion but not since 2002, had a determined look on his face when he drove down the middle on No. 1 and barely missed a birdie putt on the 482-yard par 4. Woods, still to shoot a below-par round at Oakmont, put together the twin birdies, then parred the next 10 holes.
No doubt Woods was looking for some momentum after not finding much during the first round rounds, when he had a workmanlike 1-over 71 Thursday and a 4-over 74 on Friday — a day the average score at Oakmont was 77.
After Oakmont’s speedway-fast greens got a pre-round watering, the average score dropped by about two shots Saturday — though, of course, many of those responsible for the high average Friday weren’t playing after missing the cut.
Steve Stricker also made a move up the board after being eight off the lead through two rounds, shooting a 2-under 68 Saturday — only the third round in the 60s in the last two days — to get within three of the lead.
Cabrera has never been in the lead so late in a major, and it showed. He dropped a stroke on No. 3 when his drive found a bunker and he chipped into the gallery out of the sand, but he came back with the birdie on No. 4.
Watson missed the cut a week ago in Memphis but has been playing as many 7 a.m. practice rounds as he can with Woods. Watson said he all but begged Woods to let him play so he can pick up tips to help his game and become more of a complete player rather than merely the latest big hitter.
“I bug him enough, I guess, and he lets me play with him,” Watson said. “It’s great. … I’m just napping at his feet to see how he works and see how he ticks.”
Paul Casey, who shot himself back into contention with a second-round 4-under 66 that was easily the low round of the tournament so far, edged closer to the lead with a birdie on the par-4 No. 5 and was a shot back through 12 holes. Casey looked to be out of contention following a first round 77, but was 5 under par over the next 26 holes.