PEBBLE BEACH -- With a few hours to go until the leaders tee off in the third round of the U.S. Open, some questions to contemplate:
*Is there any slowing Phil Mickelson down?
In the wake of his superb 66 on Friday, there is indeed a sense that Lefty is barreling toward his first U.S. Open title. Of course, we've had that feeling before in U.S. Opens, most notably at Shinnecock and Winged Foot, when a couple of crushing double bogeys reminded us not to get ahead of ourselves. But Mickelson is a more mature, more complete golfer than he was back then. Our gut: if someone else prevails this weekend, it won't be because Mickelson coughs it up.
*(Photo by Stephen Szurlej)
*Could Dustin Johnson be the guy to stand in Mickelson's way? Doesn't he own this place?
Definitely. OK, not really. In some ways the two-time AT&T champ had the most difficult task this week: re-learning a golf course he had already figured out. Perhaps a firm and fast Pebble Beach doesn't reward length the way the way it does when it's softened by rain in February. But Johnson is emerging as more than just a big hitter, and his power still has advantages, particularly in his ability to hit high-arcing shots into greens that are repelling just about everything else. And let's not forget leader Graeme McDowell. Two shots clear of the field, the 30-year-old Ulsterman is part of that next tier of European talents, right behind stars like Lee Westwood, Padraig Harrington, and Paul Casey. Of course, there is a reason McDowell is not in that top tier, perhaps because he has a habit of making his noise early in major championships.
How about Tiger. Does he still have a chance?
If by "chance" you're asking if Tiger has a tee time Saturday, then yes, he has a chance. It has become a cliche with Woods to say you shouldn't be surprised by anything he does. That sentiment is beginning to ring hollow, especially when considering how tentative Woods has appeared through two rounds here -- laying back off the tee, spraying it in different directions even when he does, flashing the same pained, wronged expression every time a putt skirts past the hole. It's not that Woods has played poorly, because he hasn't. It's more a testament to how small he's appeared at the most pivotal moments.
Who do the Saturday conditions favor?
Although fairly benign, with minimal wind and cloud cover, the USGA opted against watering the greens, meaning the putting surfaces are going to start firm and only getting harder as the day goes on. That's not going to be fun for anyone, but at least the players who go off earlier won't be subjected to small greens that are torn apart by spike marks.
As for the Saturday course setup, keep an eye on the third and fourth holes, both of which will feature tees moved up, allowing players to at least try to drive the green.
Speaking of which, what's with the late starting times?
As much as we'd like to think the late tee times on the weekend were for the assembled media to satisfy its own golf fix, we have a sneaking suspicion that never entered the equation. No, it's all about that perfect storm for the USGA: a photogenic, West Coast venue, and a chance to dazzle a prime-time audience. Two years after Woods' heroic win on a similar stage at Torrey Pines, excuse the blue blazers if they're rooting against a Alex Cejka-Brendan De Jonge final-round showdown.
-- *Sam Weinman *