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Saturday, June 14, 2008

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The Prime Time Player

Tiger 15
An incredulous Tiger Woods reacts with caddie Steve Williams to his hole-out for birdie from greenside rough at the par-4 17th hole in Saturday's third round. (John Mummert/USGA)
By Stuart Hall

San Diego — Tiger Woods staged his own version of “Saturday Night Live” in the third round of the U.S. Open. He finished to rave reviews.

With television coverage airing in prime time back on the East Coast for the first time in the championship’s 108-year history, Woods simply stole the show.

He began in the penultimate pairing, one shot back of Australian Stuart Appleby, and after a shaky beginning, he left the audience of thousands standing in thunderous applause.

Acting on a clearly aching left knee, Woods made two eagles and a birdie over the final six holes to shoot a 1-under 70 and take the outright lead at the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course.

He sits atop an eclectic leaderboard at 3-under 210, one shot ahead of Lee Westwood, two ahead of Rocco Mediate and four ahead of Geoff Ogilvy and D.J. Trahan. On Sunday, Woods, the 2000 and 2002 U.S. Open champion, will go in pursuit of his 14th professional major.

Woods admitted afterward that his delivery during his run-thru before going live at 2:50 p.m. local time was off.

“I didn’t warm up well today,” he said. “I didn’t hit the ball well warming up, particularly crisp and clean. I had a two-way miss going, so I was just trying to clean that up where at least I had a one-way miss.”

On cue, Woods took to the first tee with cameras rolling. The grandstand was SRO. There was overflow on the wings that was five and six people deep. Even the top row of the adjoining 18th green grandstand was three deep in anticipation of Woods’ opening line.

It bombed. For the second time in three days, Woods began his round with a double bogey 6 on the first hole.

His performance thereafter was mixed, a bogey at the par-4 fourth, a birdie at the par-4 seventh and a bogey at the par-4 12th to stand 1-over for the championship. Woods, who has never come from behind to win a major after trailing through 54 holes, was on the verge of catcalls.

“I was just trying to manage my game, stay in there,” he said. “And even though I got off to such a poor start again today, I just hung around, just get back to ever par.”

Woods showed no signs of panic or nervousness that his prime time debut was turning into a bust. Instead, he reached down and turned in as stunning a finish to a round as he has ever delivered.

On the 539-yard, par-5 13th, Woods was about to lose his audience. He drove his tee shot some 30 yards right of the fairway, well beyond the penal rough and into the well-trampled brown patch. To an elevated green with the hole location a frightful 5 yards from the front edge, Woods wasn’t looking to win over the audience.

“I was just trying to put the ball in the back bunker,” he said. “Just, whatever you do, just put the ball in the back bunker, just can't leave the ball short to that pin. And it landed on top of the green and I was surprised it even stopped. It somehow landed soft enough where it stopped.”

The ball came to rest on the apron, some 66 feet above the hole. Woods’ sight line was aided by playing partner Robert Karlsson’s ball mark.

“And I said, ‘Well, if I just get the speed right I should get inside three feet, if I just die it around his mark.’ And it went in.”

The audience erupted. They loved his shtick, especially after Woods ad-libbed a stutter step and two-armed fist pump. Outrageous.

After flubbing his lines with a bogey on the par-4 14th, Woods showed his dramatic acting. Following through on his tee shot, Woods doubled over, his left knee the obvious cause of pain. Woods made his way down the fairway, using his driver as a walking stick.

It was the kind of performance that left the audience gasping and on the edge of their seats. Could it be a show-stopper?

“There are certain shots I'll feel it,” Woods said. “And you can't say it's the drive, you can't say it's a wedge, because I don't know which one it's going to happen on.”

Afterward, off stage, Woods said, “But if pain hits, pain hits. So be it. It’s just pain.”

Two holes later, at the par-4, 441-yard 17th, Woods sprayed yet another drive right into the brown grass again, prompting an audience member to get into his act.

A female picked up the ball to identify it. Woods had to take a drop based on Decision 18-1/5, which addresses the situation of someone moving your ball that's in play and what to do when the spot from where it was moved is unknown.

Woods played a 7-iron into the left tongue of the bunker and then hit a hot one-hop pitch into the hole for a birdie. Woods looked embarrassed and laughed, as if he had waxed over a missed line. Fans should know by now that this type of miscue is part of his act.

Woods closed his performance with a big cut tee shot into the fairway on 18 and a 227-yard 5-wood into the green above the hole. He brought the audience to its feet with a curving 40-foot putt that died into the hole. Woods just stood and soaked in the applause.

“It’s all spontaneous,” said Woods, sounding more like Will Ferrell. “Thirteen I went nuts and 18 I was just like ‘Sweet.’ That’s it. I can’t tell you what’s coming. It’s just one of those emotional things. Whatever happens, happens.”

Following his show, standing in front of reviewers, Woods looked relieved. He didn’t need to wait for the next morning’s assessments. He knew what kind of performance he had delivered.

“I’m done,” he said. “It was nice to actually finish this round, and can’t wait to get back to the room.”

Stuart Hall is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on www.usopen.com.


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