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Saturday, June 14, 2008

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The Chase Is On

Westwood Swing
Lee Westwood, who hasn't had one over-par round this week, briefly held the lead Saturday. (Steven Gibbons/USGA)
By David Shefter, USGA

San Diego – If someone other than Tiger Woods is going to win the 2008 U.S. Open, they will have to break a seemingly impenetrable streak.

Or, perhaps, injure his other knee.

Woods, seeking a third U.S. Open title, is a perfect 13-for-13 when owning or sharing the 54-hole lead at major championships.

Guess where the world’s No. 1 player sits?

Despite an opening-hole double-bogey 6, the 32-year-old Woods registered last-nine heroics for the second consecutive day on Saturday at Torrey Pines, picking up a pair of eagles. It included a 3 at the par-5 home hole that gave him a 1-under-par 70 and a one-stroke advantage over England’s Lee Westwood heading into Sunday’s final round.

Westwood, the only player in the field without an over-par round, also posted a 70 and stands at 2-under 211. Rocco Mediate is the only other player with a red number after his 1-over 72 left him two shots off the pace at 212. Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 champion, and 2000 U.S. Amateur Public Links winner D.J. Trahan are tied for fourth at 1-over 214.

Second-round leader Stuart Appleby fell off the pace with a 79. In fact, only two players (Woods and Westwood) out of the last 15 groups managed to break par and 17 of the 30 shot 75 or higher.

Showing more visible signs of pain than the previous two days from his surgically repaired left knee – he had arthroscopic surgery April 15 – Woods looked to be playing his way out of the championship when he rolled in a 66-footer for eagle at 13, bringing a patented Tiger fist pump. A bogey at 14 didn’t seem to derail his magic. He flew his chip shot at No. 17 in for a birdie and then drained the left-to-right, 25-foot downhill putt at 18 to close the round to a rousing ovation.

“At 13, I just went nuts,” said Woods, who carded a last-nine 30 on Friday. “Eighteen was just sweet.”

It’s not like anyone has seen this before from Woods. But even Mediate was impressed, approaching Woods near the scoring area with the comment, “Mr. Woods, Mr. Woods, I have a question. Are you out of your mind?”

Most observers thought Woods’ long layoff from competition – he had not played since the Masters eight weeks ago – would have him rusty coming into the year’s second major. And Woods has shown signs of being slightly off as evidenced by his second double bogey at the first hole this week. He also hit just six of 14 fairways.

Several times, he grimaced while hitting tee shots, including the par-4 15th when NBC lead golf analyst Johnny Miller remarked: “Normally he doesn’t carry his driver [walking down the fairway]. It’s basically a cane now.”

Woods acknowledged the knee hurts more than Friday. When asked by a reporter if he plans to get treatment again Saturday night, he replied with a smile, “I hope so; if I ever get out of here (Media Center). [But] I’ll be fine.”

Before entering the media center, he told another reporter that his knee was getting worse.

Westwood also came into the Open fresh from an unusual two-week layoff due to a virus. Normally, he would not take that much time away from competition, but he had not played since withdrawing from the BMW Championship three weeks ago.

That left the 35-year-old a bit under the radar when U.S. Open contenders were discussed. While Westwood does not have a major to his résumé, he does own 18 European Tour wins and one PGA Tour victory. His Open record is not spectacular, but he did finish T5 in 2000 at Pebble Beach and T7 in ’98 at The Olympic Club. In either case, he was well back of the champion.

“I kept my expectations low, and it’s sometimes easy to go out when you don’t have any expectations,” said Westwood, vying to be the first European since Tony Jacklin in 1970 to win the Open. “You just free-wheel and play how you should play, one shot at a time.”

But on Sunday, Westwood will have more than just his game to be concerned about. He’s paired with Woods, no easy task for even the most experienced golfers. Sweden’s Robert Karlsson, who ranks second on Europe’s Order of Merit and has not finished worse than eighth over his last five starts (including the Masters), shot a 77 in that situation on Saturday.

And he’ll have to beat a man who already owns six professional wins at Torrey Pines and another while he was a junior.

“You’ve got to play with somebody,” said Westwood, drawing laughter from reporters. “You pretty much have to accept when you come to a major championship and you’re in the last group on the last day. Nowadays you’re probably going to be playing with Tiger Woods. If you’re playing with Tiger Woods on Sunday in a major, you’ve got to be pleased with what you’re doing and where you [are].”

Mediate, 45, looked as if he was going to have the 54-hole lead when he birdied the 10th hole to go to four under for the championship. But he made a disastrous bogey at the par-5 13th and then double-bogeyed 15 and bogeyed 16 to fall back to even par. He rolled in a 12-footer at 17 to become the third player in red figures.

“I hit my ball, really, really good most of the day,” said Mediate, who found his way into the ’08 Open via a playoff at sectional qualifying June 2 in Columbus, Ohio. “When I had the lead, I was nervous, very nervous but very comfortable. Today … I made one little mistake and I got ripped. That’s what the Open does to you.”

Nobody is immune to mistake-free golf at the Open, but with Woods now leading, any error will be magnified twofold. Trahan, competing in just his second Open and looking for his third win as a professional, certainly understands and perhaps summed it up best when describing what the rest of the field will be enduring on Sunday.

“Obviously, he’s the best front-runner the game has ever seen,” said Trahan. “It will be tough to catch him.”

David Shefter is a USGA New Media staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at dshefter@usga.org.


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