Goosen survives as Shinnecock Hills bares fangs

? The brittle grass played like concrete. Then the wind showed up at the U.S. Open, and Shinnecock Hills was scarier than ever.

The one constant Saturday was the unflappable Retief Goosen.

The coolest customer in any conditions, Goosen had a 1-under 69 — one of only three guys to break par — and wound up with a two-shot lead when Masters champion Phil Mickelson stumbled down the stretch.

“The course has been smiling the last couple of days, showing its nice teeth,” Corey Pavin said. “Today, those teeth turned into fangs.”

Goosen was one of the few who was able to bite back, recovering from a few loose shots with two birdies late in the third round that put him at 5-under 205.

Mickelson and Ernie Els, the stars from the shootout at the Masters that gave Mickelson his first major, were right behind on a links-styled course where two shots can be lost with one swing.

“We won’t have any type of finish like we had at Augusta,” Mickelson said. “What we will have is guys outlasting each other, who can make the most pars before somebody bogeys, that type of thing.”

In other words, a typical U.S. Open.

Mickelson was tied for the lead until he made bogey from a plugged lie in the bunker at No. 17, then missed a 4-foot par putt on the final hole that cost him a chance to be in the final pairing today. He shot 73, his first round over par in the majors this year.

Retief Goosen acknowledges the crowd after parring the 16th hole during the third round of the U.S. Open. Goosen was one of only three players to break par Saturday at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y.

Els battled back from back-to-back bogeys and shot an even-par 70.

“That’s as hard as a U.S. Open gets right there,” said Els, a two-time winner of golf’s toughest test. “From 1 to 10 in difficulty, it’s an 11.”

Had Goosen not missed a 5-foot birdie on the 18th, his lead could have been even bigger. But the easygoing South African is not one to lose sleep over a missed chance like that.

Remember, he three-putted from 12 feet on the final hole of the ’01 U.S. Open at Southern Hills, and bounced back to rout Mark Brooks in an 18-hole playoff the next day.

And while he looks like he’s half-asleep on the course, he is churning inside like the rest of them.

“Major championships are not easy to just have a nice laugh around the course,” Goosen said. “It’s hard work and a lot of grinding.”

Shigeki Maruyama, one of five players who had at least a share of the lead at some point, chopped up the 18th and missed a short putt to take double bogey, giving him a 74. He was at 2-under 208, along with Fred Funk (72).

Tiger Woods was one of the few guys who got in the last word, holing out a lob wedge for eagle on the 18th that salvaged his pride, but probably not his chances. Woods shot 73 and was eight shots behind, headed toward an eighth straight major without a trophy.

Tiger Woods shows displeasure after a poor tee shot on the sixth hole. Woods shot a 3-over-par 73 Saturday in Southampton, N.Y., and is nine strokes back.

The last five U.S. Open champions had at least a share of the lead going into the final round.

“Retief … he’s got the perfect temperament and a hell of a game,” Els said. “I’ve got to play my game. I’ve got to play as good as I can.”

Another South African had the best round of the day — Tim Clark, who teed off about two hours before the leaders and shot a 66 that moved him within four shots of the lead at 1-under 209. Joining him was Jeff Maggert, who got to 7 under par and had a two-shot lead until playing the final 13 holes in 6 over par.

“I try and look at the humor of it, but it’s tough when you’re out there struggling,” Maggert said.

Even before Mickelson got to Shinnecock Hills, it was clear this would be a day of survival. It happens every year at the U.S. Open, when the grass gets crusty and firm and the best players in the world get beaten up.

“The Masters was hard, but it was nothing like this,” U.S. Amateur champion Casey Wittenberg said after a 75.

There were a few exceptions.

Clark, who finished third at the PGA Championship last year, nearly made a double-eagle on the par-5 fifth hole when his 6-iron stopped an inch behind the cup. He had a tap-in birdie on the 16th, and thought he had another on the 18th until he pushed a 2-footer for birdie.

“I don’t see too many people making that score today,” Clark said.

Charles Howell III was in the second group to tee off, having made the cut on the number. He shot 68 and moved into a tie for 13th at 3-over 213.

On the other end of the spectrum was J.J. Henry, who made only one par in his round of 86. Kevin Stadler (82) and Billy Mayfair (81) also failed to break 80. Vijay Singh started with three straight bogeys and never recovered, ending his U.S. Open chances with a 77.

Woods was somewhere in between.

He bogeyed two of his first three holes. Even worse, it took him three wedges to go 100 yards up the slope on No. 10 and he eventually made double bogey. This major is probably a lost cause, too, although Woods was allowed one last shred of hope with his 18th-hole theatrics.

“If you get the guys to come back more, I can get a chance to win this thing,” Woods said.

He would have to break a record in the process, because no one has ever come from more than seven shots back in the final round to win the U.S. Open.

Mickelson’s only big mistake wasn’t even his fault.

The par-3 seventh hole — the one players worried about earlier in the week — was nearly unplayable. It slopes hard to the left. The wind was blowing to the left. The green had been rolled overnight by mistake.

Mickelson landed right of the flag with an 8-iron and it rolled off the green. He chipped 8 feet by, leaving him a downhill putt that he barely touched. No matter — it trickled past the hole, and almost back down the green before it stopped long enough for Mickelson to mark it. He missed that 12-footer for double bogey.

But he gutted it out, and continued to make most of his nervy par putts in the dangerous 4-foot range.

Goosen missed a few fairways and took bogeys on the back nine, but he recovered with a solid 15-foot birdie on the 15th and a good up-and-down for birdie on the 16th.

“I feel like I’m ready to get into it today at the U.S. Open,” he said.

It sounds like he’s ready to rumble, and Shinnecock Hills is sure to put up a hellacious fight.