Pebble Beach, Calif. Dustin Johnson plays his best at Pebble Beach no matter what month, no matter what stage.
Hours after Tiger Woods came to life in the U.S. Open with his best round of the year to get into contention, Johnson turned in a prime-time performance every bit as good Saturday.
Johnson, the two-time defending champion in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, overpowered the course and birdied his last two holes, hitting 6-iron onto the green from the rough on the par-5 18th for a 5-under 66 and a three-shot lead over Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland.
“If I keep hitting like I’ve been hitting and putting it in the spots on the green, then I’m going to be tough to beat,” said Johnson, who was at 6-under 207.
McDowell struggled down the stretch, fell out of the lead on the 17th and finished with an even-par 71. He will play in the final group today, with a familiar face — and a familiar game — directly in front. Woods was alone in third, five strokes back after his own 66.
Woods finally looks like the Woods of old.
Nine shots out of the lead after a pair of sloppy bogeys early in his round, Woods hit his stride by making the clutch putts and extraordinary shots that have been missing since he returned to competition two months ago.
First came a curling, downhill birdie putt on the 17th.
He followed that with an aggressive 3-wood on the 18th, carving it around a cypress and out toward the Pacific and onto the green to about 15 feet for a two-putt birdie. It was his eighth birdie of the round, the most he has ever made in a U.S. Open.
And it put him in the mix for a 15th major, and second U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
“It’s been a while,” Woods said. “I hadn’t played good enough for anyone to cheer anything. So it was nice to actually put it together on the back nine and put myself right back in the championship.”
Johnson, who played a practice round with Woods on Monday, made it a lot tougher.
The 25-year-old from South Carolina, often overlooked among the stylish young stars in golf, put on a powerful display that led Woods earlier this week to call him “stupid long.”
The USGA moved the tees forward on No. 4 to make it play 284 yards up the hill and tempt players to try to drive the green. Johnson did just that — with a 3-iron to four feet for an eagle. And on the 18th, the same hole where Woods hit 3-wood off the tee and 3-wood onto the green for the loudest cheer of the day, Johnson got there with a driver and a 6-iron.
“Length is an advantage a lot of places, but definitely here, especially if I’m hitting it in the fairway,” Johnson said. “Because the ball is going a long way. I’m hitting it extra far.”
Johnson is not flashy. He’s not a fist-pumper. And he didn’t sound the least bit flustered about taking a three-shot lead into the final round of the U.S. Open.
“This is what I live for ... to go out and have a chance to win a U.S. Open,” he said.
Johnson, McDowell and Woods were the only three players who remained under par, while Ernie Els (72) and Gregory Havret of France (69) were at even-par 213.
Phil Mickelson stumbled at the start, nearly fell apart along the coastal holes when he had to play one shot right-handed, and had to scramble for par on the closing hole when his tee shot bounced off the rocks and rolled back down on the beach.
Mickelson, runner-up in the U.S. Open a record five times, wound up with a 73 and was seven shots out of the lead.
“I didn’t hit it as well as I did yesterday, so I had to fight pretty hard to get some up-and-downs — some ridiculous up-and-downs — to keep it within striking distance,” said Mickelson, who was at 1-over 214.
Mickelson normally would settle for 1-over par going into the last round of a U.S. Open. He just didn’t expect Johnson, one of his regular practice partners, to surge so far ahead.
“But anything can happen on Sunday,” Mickelson said. “And if you make a move, you can make up a lot of ground.”
That’s exactly what Woods did.
After bogeys on the second and third holes, he ran off birdies on the next three and made the turn in even par. Birdies on the 11th and 13th holes got him closer to the conversation, and the final three holes set off a series of cheers that could be heard from all corners of the peninsula.
He rolled in a 12-foot birdie from the 16th, then made the tough, downhill 15-footer from the fringe of the 17th, raising his index finger in the air.
The old Tiger showed up on the 18th hole.
Blocked behind a pair of cypress trees, some 260 yards from the flag into an ocean breeze, Woods hit a 3-wood toward the Pacific and urged it on toward the green. “C’mon! C’mon!” he screamed at it, and followed that with a “Yes!” when it stopped 15 feet from the pin.
“I was hitting shots like this every now and again,” Woods said. “I would get into two-, three-hole stretches, but I haven’t strung it out for more than that. And today, I did.”
Even so, history is working against him.
Woods has never won any of his 14 majors when he wasn’t at least tied for the lead going into the final round. He at least gave himself a chance. And while he won by a record 15 shots the last time the U.S. Open was played at Pebble Beach, in 2000, he rallied from a five-shot deficit earlier that year to win the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, a tournament he no longer plays.
The USGA pushed back the starting times so the third round could be broadcast in prime time on the East Cost, just like two years ago at Torrey Pines. Woods delivered quite a show that day by turning a five-shot deficit into a one-shot lead.
Neither Johnson nor McDowell have ever contended in a major.
McDowell quickly built a four-shot lead with birdies on the opening two holes as Mickelson went in the other direction, with a three-putt bogey on the opening hole and a chip that he hit 15 feet by the hole on the second.
He regained the lead with a birdie on the ninth, where Johnson missed a 3-foot par putt. McDowell was still tied for the lead on the 17th until the two-shot swing, when he missed the green and made bogey.
Just like that, he was three shots behind.
“He was awesome today,” McDowell said. “He really just stood up and had no fear, hit the shots — hit all the shots. He’s going to go home and sleep on a three-shot lead, and we’ll see how he feels tomorrow morning. If he turns up tomorrow like he did today, he’s going to be tough to beat.”