Oakmont, Pa. — Aaron Baddeley dug his feet in the sand and trained his eyes on a golf ball buried in thick grass at the base of a bunker. He was staring at a third straight bogey Saturday at the U.S. Open, each one dropping him closer to Tiger Woods.
He choked up on the wedge, his fingers almost touching the steel shaft, and somehow punched it onto the fringe of the 17th green to escape with par and pass his first big test at Oakmont.
"That was key," Baddeley said. "That really felt like a birdie, to be honest."
Next comes the final exam.
Baddeley stood upright and clenched his fist when a 12-foot putt for birdie dropped on the final hole for an even-par 70, knowing that every shot counts at the U.S. Open, especially now.
It gave him a two-shot lead over Woods, who was practically perfect from tee to green in his round of 69, one of only two rounds under par even though Oakmont's fearsome greens showed a softer side.
Despite a bogey on the final hole, the only time in the third round Woods missed the green, the world's No. 1 player was in the final group of a major championship for the second time this year.
Woods will be going for his 13th major. Baddeley is playing in his 11th.
"I'm going to deal with some emotions because I've never been in this position before," said Baddeley, who was at 2-over 212. "But I play golf. I've worked my whole life to be in this position, so I'm going to embrace it."
He'll have his hands full if Woods brings the same game on Sunday.
Woods gave himself a birdie putt on every hole until he drove into a bunker on the 18th hole and cringed when his 15-foot par putt tickled the edge of the cup, a far too common sight for him on this day. He took 35 putts and still had one of only two subpar rounds at an Oakmont course that was only slightly more forgiving.
"I hit a lot of good putts that grazed the edge, but hey, I put myself right there in the tournament," Woods said. "Right in the mix."
Woods has never won a major when trailing going into the final round. He played in the last group at the Masters with Stuart Appleby and briefly had the lead Sunday, but wound up in a tie for second.
But he has experience on his side.
Baddeley has made the cut in only three of his previous 10 majors, his best finish a tie for 52nd at the Masters this year. The 26-year-old Australian will play with Woods for the third time in a major, but the first time on a Sunday.
"I've been there before, and I know what it takes," Woods said.
Paul Casey shot a 72 and was at 5-over 215 with Stephen Ames (73), Justin Rose (73) and Bubba Watson (75), who made a triple bogey from the left side of the ninth green but steadied himself with pars and a lone bogey the rest of the way.
The other subpar round belonged to Steve Stricker, who holed out from 74 yards for birdie on the 18th hole for a 68 to give himself a chance at 6-over 216, tied with former champion Jim Furyk (70) and 36-hole leader Angel Cabrera (76), who slowly lost ground until he chopped his way to a bogey-bogey finish.
Baddeley has been building for a moment like this, even if some thought it would come much sooner.
He won the Australian Open as an 18-year-old amateur in 1999 by holding off Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie, saying then that his goal was to become better than Woods. He won the Australian Open a year later as a pro, but found detours in America, struggling to get his card and picking up his first PGA Tour only last year.
But he showed amazing poise on an Oakmont course that played tamer with accessible hole locations and greens that had been watered three times after the carnage of Friday afternoon.
As the leaders began to lose ground, Baddeley surged ahead. He made three birdies in a four-hole stretch, culminating with a 6-foot putt on the 13th hole that stretched his lead to three. But he took bogey after a tee shot into deep rough on the 15th hole, dropped another shot with a tee shot into the bunker on the par-3 16th and looked to be in big trouble on the 17th until his great escape.
"Tiger is the best player in the world," Baddeley said. "But I feel like I'm playing nicely."
Oakmont was on the edge of being close to impossible Friday afternoon, and the USGA responded by twice watering the greens overnight, then again two hours before the third round.
"They took pity on us," Jeff Brehaut said after his even-par 70 left him six shots behind. "I wasn't expecting that."
For the first time all week, attention shifted from the course to the players.
One in particular.
Woods gave himself realistic birdie chances on every hole and rarely had to work for par. An 8-iron stopped 8 feet away on No. 3 for birdie, and he followed that with a 3-iron into 20 feet on the par-5 fourth and a chance at eagle. He dropped his putter and placed his hands on his knees when it broke in front of the cup, something Woods got used to seeing.
He had putts inside 15 feet on the fifth and seventh that he barely touched because they were above the hole, longer putts on the eighth and ninth that tickled the edge of the cup.
Most impressive of all was his control, hitting every green in regulation until the final hole.
"If he'd putted like I did, he'd have shot 6 under," said first-round leader Nick Dougherty, who played with Woods and shot 74. "Tee to green, he's just awesome. It's going to take something pretty special to beat him tomorrow. If he plays like that tomorrow, nobody's going to beat him."
But just like Saturday at the Masters, Woods didn't quite finish it off.
He was atop the leaderboard at Augusta National until a bogey-bogey finish put him one shot behind Appleby going into the final round.
This time, Woods drove the green on the par-4 17th, but it skidded through and into rough so deep that the best he could do was leave himself about 25 feet for birdie, and he had to make a 5-footer for par. Woods saved his worst tee shot for the end, into a deep bunker right of the fairway with no shot at reaching the green. His third was long, about 15 feet above the hole, and it again grazed the edge.
By then, Baddeley had run off a pair of birdies to get to 1 over. The Australian gave back two shots in the final hour, but he still managed to keep his nose in front and then gave himself a small cushion with the 15-foot birdie on the last hole.
Still, a dozen players were separated by five shots going into the final round on a course that is tough even when the USGA wants it to play slightly easier.
"This golf course doesn't lend itself to too many birdies," Ames said. "So the guy who makes the least mistakes will be the guy to win."