PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Tiger Woods was standing in the middle of the last fairway at Pebble Beach, a Cypress tree in his path, the national championship suddenly bearing the whiff of something old and familiar.
For two and a half days of golf, Woods had been a bit player in the drama of this United States Open, heckled about his sex scandal, cold on the greens and shown up by Phil Mickelson.
Woods’s only route to the par-5 18th green — and maybe back to golfing relevance — was to play a cut shot that would start toward the long seawall to the left and the water beyond it, with the hope that his ball would bend back toward the green.
“When I got up to [the ball] I said, ‘You know what? I actually have a shot at this,'” Woods said. “Make sure I commit to a cut … and it came off perfect.”
Woods’s rifled fairway wood shot left him a good chance at eagle, but he missed the putt and settled for birdie. It was the capper on a back-nine 31, a third-round 66 and a thundering charge into the heart of the championship.
Woods’s round left him five shots from the lead and within whispering distance of his 15th major championship and first victory since a Thanksgiving car accident led to revelations of infidelity that landed him in rehab.
Woods will be chasing Dustin Johnson, who shot his own brilliant 66 in the gloaming and who will be looking to add his first major championship to a pair of wins in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Johnson leads Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, who shot 71, by three shots.
On a crisp and windy Saturday on a course where Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots, the strange circumstances of a smashed Escalade and a tabloid frenzy seemed miles from Pebble’s craggy shoreline. It was golf shining on the Monterey Peninsula, and no one’s golf was more glittering than Tiger’s.
“I hadn’t played good enough for people to cheer me,” Woods said.
He has now. Four months ago, Woods was standing in front of a TV camera, apologizing to the world for his behavior. In April, he finished tied for fourth at the Masters and missed the cut at Quail Hollow. May brought a withdrawal from the Players due to an inflamed neck and a 19th-place finish at the Memorial. And June?
“I’m going to have to put together another good round in order to win this,” said Woods, who has never won a major while trailing going into the final round.
Woods will need his best Sunday against an array of talented players clogging the leader board. Johnson has notched two consecutive wins here in February, and he has more than held up on a course that is playing much speedier in June. With rounds of 71, 70 and 66, he seems to be comfortable and in control, but major-championship Sundays can break the strongest of men.
In Saturday’s fading light, Johnson, the longest player in the field, hit tee shots that tore through the sky and putted with the touch of a violinist. He is betraying no nerves.
“I put myself in a great position for tomorrow,” Johnson said. “Keep playing like I’m playing, and im going to be tough to beat.”
Phil Mickelson, who appeared in control of the championship after a second-round 66, imploded with a rash of mistakes in a round of two-over 73 that left him one over for the tournament, seven shots out of the lead. With five runner-up finishes and years of heartbreak in the U.S. Open, Mickelson let an opportunity slip.
He bogeyed his opening two holes and on No. 18 drove left into the rocks and seaweed bordering the fairway. With his bright white pants, Mickelson scaled down a hill and into the hazard to review his options before ultimately taking a penalty drop. From 242 yards out, Mickelson reached the green and two-putted for par.
“I didn’t strike it as great as I did yesterday,” Mickelson said. “It happens. If I can get off to a good start tomorrow, you never know.”
He will have to hopscotch a leader board of tour winners and major champions, including Woods, whose seven-month odyssey has led him to a moment that somehow feels fresh and nostalgic at the same time.