The media tent at the Olympic Club in San Francisco—which is like a combination of Sportsbook in Las Vegas and the NASA Control Center—went through an emotional roller coaster Saturday at the 112th U.S. Open.
Tiger Woods imploded with a five-over-par 75 and Graeme McDowell surged up the leaderboard to tie for the lead with Jim Furyk at one under for the championship.
If that weren't enough, a 17-year-old California kid named Beau Hossler—who had no business even being around this weekend—shot a remarkable round of even-par 70 and is contention for the U.S. Open title.
What’s bizarre was the sense of assurance that was so palpably widespread among golf fans and experts alike on Saturday morning that Woods would win. Prior to even the first tee shot being struck, it seemed destined among the golf gods that once Woods was perched atop the leaderboard, he’d stay there until he collected his 15th major Sunday afternoon.
Then everything unraveled.
Woods looked helpless right out of the gates in the third round, stumbling to four bogeys in just his first nine holes. He went onto shoot a dreadful five-over-par 75 and now enters the fourth and final round without a shred of momentum, five shots behind the 54-hole leaders, Graeme McDowell and Jim Furyk.
Unfortunately for Woods, many aspects of his game let him down, but more than anything it was his putter. Woods’ short game is simply not as bulletproof as he used to be, and it was a glaring issue in his third-round plummet.
Of course the errant drives and poorly placed iron shots didn’t help his cause, but he continued to misread lines and misjudge speed on the greens at Olympic in the third round. This is not the type of course to be forgiving and Woods looked simply incapable of executing the shots he envisioned. He never found a rhythm to gain strokes back, which would have been the difference because he’s the kind of player who thrives off momentum.
While he’s still in contention, he did not take advantage on moving day (Saturday) like his competitors, who are now 18 holes closer to history.
Throngs of people were drawn to the aforementioned Beau Hossler, who balanced four bogeys with four birdies to shoot even par on the day, and actually qualified for this year's open as a 16-year-old. When you think about the fact that Hossler is even in the conversation, let alone contention—while Masters champion Bubba Watson shot nine over par in two days and the world’s No. 1 ranked player, Luke Donald, shot 11 over—it’s simply remarkable.
The kid handled the pressure with poise. He may not be able to legally buy an alcoholic drink for four more years, but Hossler has played three rounds of smart, fearless golf on one of the most challenging U.S. Open venues in over a decade. Give it up for the kid.
The spotlight immediately turned to Graeme McDowell Saturday, who made a statement with his two-under-par 68. He is already a proven U.S. champion from two years ago at Pebble Beach and, although he came in a bit under the radar, he earned a share of the lead with a brilliant third-round performance. To McDowell, it was a testament to his mental fortitude.
“I came into the course today intent on two emotions. Positive emotions and neutral emotions. You can’t let yourself get down on this golf course. Mistakes will happen. But I was delighted with my effort today. This place is like a one-sided amphitheater. It echos like Augusta.”
McDowell shot three under on his back nine, taking advantage of accurate drives off the tee with aggressive iron play. Also, the Northern Irishmen has a crafty short game, the kind you need to not just survive, but win, a U.S. Open.
He will play in the final group with veteran Jim Furyk Sunday, who shot even par in the third round. Although he got off to a rough start, Furyk’s putting was the most solid part of his game and it’s undeniably what’s kept him in contention.
The suspense of the morning that surrounded Tiger has now shifted to a captivation of the many capable names on this leaderboard. McDowell and Furyk each own a major championship, so they understand the pressure, both inwardly and outwardly, that comes on Sunday afternoon. But Fredrik Jacobson is just two shots off the lead after a terrific two-under-par 68, highlighted by a string of three consecutive birdies.
Lee Westwood is also within striking distance. Known as the world’s best player without a major, Westwood’s biggest flaw on Sundays at majors has been taking advantage of viable birdie opportunities. Tomorrow will be up a question of his short game not just holding up, but being his backbone.
Many other competitors sit at three and four over par with a legitimate chance. But the world is no doubt wondering whether Woods will revive his game for a Sunday masterpiece.