Tom Watson is not finished as a golfer. Tiger Woods’ career is not over. Phil Mickelson is still unpredictable. And Dustin Johnson is not a fluke. These were the lessons of the third round of the US Open at Pebble Beach. The exciting part is that Saturday felt like a Sunday, but there’s still one great day of golf to go.
Tom Watson rolled back the clock once again, at least for a few holes. He was three under par for the day, at +4, before falling back to +6 with untimely bogeys at the 15th and 17th holes. The 17th, where Watson made US Open history in 1982, was not as kind to him today. He hit into the back fringe, right of the pin.
“I flubbed the chip,” he admitted. “I had a chip that was in the loose fescue grass around there. It’s unpredictable, and I tried to hit is, and it went about a foot.”
He missed a short putt at the 18th for birdie.
“It was kind of a disappointing finish because I bogeyed 17 and missed the birdie at 18,” he said, “But all in all, I’m very happy with shooting 70.”
Tiger Woods, finishing nearly two hours ahead of the second round leaders, finally found his form, firing a 66 for -1 and third place at the US Open.
“I put it together today,” Woods said simply. “I kept telling myself all day, you just need to get back to even par for the tournament.”
At the beginning of his round it did not look like it would be his day. He started with two bogeys, then ripped off three birdies in a row and was at +3 before giving one back and posting an even par 35 on the front side. Then on the back nine, he birdied the 11th, 13th, and the last three for a 31.
“All the Opens that I’ve won, I’ve had one stretch of nine holes,” Woods explained, meaning nine exceptional holes. “It doesn’t have to be on a back nine or a front nine, just a nine-hole stretch where you put it together.” He felt that he had that today.
Then he gave us a new golf term. The shot from behind the tree on the 18th? He called it a “hold-y three-wood.” Feel free to use that in your foursome.
Ernie Els played inconsistent golf, with his score varying between -1 and +1 for the round. He ended up +1 for the day, even for the tournament, one shot behind Woods and six behind Dustin Johnson..
“My emotions were pretty tense, but I felt like I played OK,” Els said, although he never appears to be tense. “I’ve got to eliminate these little mistakes I’ve been making all week, three-putting and not getting the ball up and down. Hopefully everything goes my way. I’m hitting the ball quite nicely.”
Phil Mickelson fans needed Dramamine to follow his round. There were so many ups and downs and twists it played more like The Scrambler ride than a round of golf. From bogeys at the first and second to the rocks at the last, wayward shots cost him dearly.
At the ninth, his drive found the left bunker, which was in the rough. He hit the lip of the bunker on his second shot and the ball landed in the rough. He followed that with a shot into fescue short right of the green in the hazard. From there Lefty played righty, scooting the ball across the green and eventually making double bogey.
“Obviously missing the fairway left on nine cost me two ( strokes),” Mickelson admitted. “You're going to make a bogey here and there. But just those little things, not getting my lag putts on one and six cost me a couple. Just those little things I've got to get sharp tomorrow.”
That’s one way to put it. At the 17th, he found the grandstands. At the 18th, it was the rocks. He made pars on both, but to gain on the leader, he will a few birdies in the final round.
“Sunday at the Open a lot of things can happen,” Mickelson said. “I'll be off with the leaders, and I need to get hot in those first seven holes that you can make birdies. You can makeup a lot of ground if you make birdies Sunday at the U.S. Open. It will be challenging to make up that many shots.”
He said he did not expect to be as far behind but gave Johnson credit for playing exceptional golf.
“I think under par is going to end up winning it, but I don't know by how many,” he added.
With Woods score looming in the background, only one golfer moved ahead: Dustin Johnson, who came from -1 and finished -6, three shots clear of Graeme McDowell and five clear of Tiger Woods.
“I drove it well, hit a lot of fairways and greens, and even when I missed the greens I left myself with a chance to get up‑and‑down,” Johnson said, summarizing his play.
If we can believe him, he will not lose sleep being in the lead.
“I put myself in a great position for tomorrow,” he added. “It's going to be very hard out there. And I am going to have to stay patient and keep playing like I'm playing, and I'm going to be tough to beat.”
He will be nervous he said, but taking a page out of the Fred Couples playbook, Johnson said it will be a “good nervous.”
No matter what, he is sticking to the plan that got him the 54-hole lead.
“If it's coming down to the last hole, I'm not going to change anything I'm hitting driver on 18,” he assured the media after his round. “But if I have a—hypothetically— if I've got a five‑shot lead or something, I might hit an iron off the tee in the fairway and go from there.”
What may tell the story are the pairings. Johnson will play with Graeme McDowell again. Woods plays with Gregory Havret, who is little known in the US. And Mickelson and Els play together. That will be a pleasant and potentially explosive pair to watch.
For Woods to win, he will have to shoot another 66 and hope that Johnson falls back, a common occurrence when golfers attempt to win their first majors. While that drama is unfolding, someone like McDowell could surprise.
Stranger things have happened in golf.