PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. » Tiger Woods waited at the podium, drumming his fingers nervously on the tabletop as the press filed into the interview room.
Off to his right was a television set that he watched intently as Dustin Johnson and Graeme McDowell navigated the par-3 12th. After shooting a phenomenal 66 that included eight birdies over the final 15 holes, Woods knew the only two guys in front of him had a tough stretch coming in.
As well as Woods navigated the back nine — he shot a 31 — the rest of the field struggled over the closing holes that played into devilish winds off the Pacific during the late afternoon on the Monterey peninsula.
Woods would have preferred to be locked in a room somewhere watching these closing holes, but he faced the 250 people in the room, instead, describing the best round he’s had since returning to golf 10 weeks ago.
There were so many phenomenal shots for the man they call the Tiger, including his approach at the 18th with a tree barely 50 yards in front of him that he knocked to within 20 feet for eagle. Absent these past few months have been the fist pumps and that Woods smile that spreads across his face every time he makes a big putt.
At the tricky 17th, Woods rolled one in for birdie from above the hole, prompting him to exchange a low five with caddy Steve Williams as he walked off the par-3 green and toward his possible 15th major victory.
He enters today’s final round five shots behind Johnson, who equaled the best 18 of the day with a 5-under 66 of his own. Johnson has won the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am two years running and obviously likes this 18-hole layout, but he has never been in a position like this.
Woods is playing one group in front of Johnson today, giving him a clear view of what he needs to do to win America’s national championship. They aren’t the only two golfers in the field with a chance to win. McDowell struggled a bit on the back nine to close at 3 under for the tournament, three behind Johnson, who is at 6-under 207.
The two will be paired again today, with Woods (1-under 212) and France’s Gregory Havret (even 213) in the next-to-last group. In front of them will be two-time U.S. Open champ Ernie Els (213) and 2010 Masters winner Phil Mickelson (1-over 214) to set up one of the best final rounds in recent memory.
One of these six men figures to be the 2010 U.S. Open champion, with Woods, Els and Mickelson garnering the most attention. Woods said in his interview that he’d been waiting for a nine-hole stretch like the one he had yesterday.
"All the U.S. Opens that I’ve won I’ve had one stretch of nine holes," Woods said. "It doesn’t have to be on a back nine or a front nine, just a nine-hole stretch where you put it together.
"That’s what most U.S. Open champions have done, and I did it today. I got myself back in the championship with those nine holes. At Torrey Pines, the back nine on Saturday as well. That nine-hole stretch got me back in the tournament as well."
So, if you were a betting man, who would you take? Well, it’s hard to ignore the Tiger. It’s also difficult to follow up a 66 with another one just like it. Ask Mickelson; he fired a 66 on Friday and 73 yesterday, giving you an idea what Johnson and Woods face today.
With that said, perhaps Mickelson and Els will make the necessary move, maybe even McDowell deserves a look. He won at last week’s Wales Open, and if he gets hot, he could become the first European since Tony Jacklin in 1970 to capture a U.S. Open. My guess? It will be Johnson, who played a couple of practice rounds with Woods earlier this week.
Woods said Johnson hits it miles and his recent success could give him good feelings in today’s final round. No matter what, it’s going to be exciting. And for those of us here in Monterey, the real fun is about to begin.
Sports editor Paul Arnett covers professional golf for the Star-Advertiser.