PEBBLE BEACH — Tiger Woods was the longest of long shots heading into the third round, nine strokes back of the Gary Woodland's 36-hole lead. If this was any other player, he would have been written off. But this is far from any player, at a place where he submitted the most dominant performance the sport has seen. Impossible as the odds seemed Saturday morning, there remained a curiosity if the 43-year-old could summon some early morning magic.
Though Woods proved at Augusta he's more than capable of conjuring such spirits, there has been no such show this week. Woods' U.S. Open chances came to an end on Saturday with an even-par 71.
"It’s been frustrating," Woods told GOLFTV. "I’ve had ample looks to shoot good scores, and I haven’t. When I’ve left balls below the hole, I’ve made them. But above the hole, things get a little squirrely around this place."
It certainly wasn't for lack of effort. Woods got to the course three hours before his tee time Saturday morning, about 90 minutes earlier than most pros arrive. He was coming off one of his worst putting performances of the season, finishing 142nd in strokes gained on the greens in Round 2. Part of that Woods ascribed to putting approaches in the wrong spots, but there's no doubt he wasn't simpatico with his trusty Scotty Cameron.
That relationship didn't improve on Saturday, and it was evident from the start. Woods missed a 12-foot par save on the first, forced to lay-up after he sent his drive in the left-hand rough. Then there was another miss on the second, this time a 10-foot birdie. And because bad things happen in threes, Tiger bogeyed the third, unable to get up-and-down from a greenside bunker.
"I got off to a crap start," Woods admitted afterwards. "Those are the easier holes. And I had to try to fight back and claw out a round today."
All week, Woods has put a premium on the first seven at Pebble, saying that's where to get things in red. He's right: Heading into Saturday, those holes played a collective 21 under par. The rest of the course? More than 500-over par.
Woods rallied with birdies at the fourth and fifth, the latter coming off a 25-footer. But he failed to birdie the par-5 sixth, the easiest scoring hole by far this week, and followed with a three-putt on the 98-yard par-3 seventh. Through Pebble's "easy" stretch, the one so critical to an under-par round, Woods was one over, essentially putting the kibosh on a weekend charge.
To his credit, he did not fold. He parred the eighth, ninth and 10th, a three-hole gauntlet that features the second, first and fourth-hardest holes on the links. And bogeys at the 12th and 15th were wiped out by red numbers at the 14th and 16th. He even threw in a birdie at the last to get back to even for the day.
Unfortunately, the damage had been done, and Woods—needing the strongest of pushes—stayed put.
Woods asserted he's not disappointed with his play at Pebble Beach. It's just the scoring hasn't turned his way.
"I've had my chances to post good rounds this week. Today was a perfect example, I fought back and if I was able to clean up my rounds the first two days, I would be closer to the lead than I am now," Woods said.
Regarding the medical tape on his neck, Woods remarked there's no cause for alarm. "When it's cold like this everything is achy," Woods said. "It's just part of the deal. The forces have to go somewhere. And if they're not in the lower back, they're in the neck, and if not, they're in the mid-back and if not they go to the knee. You name it."
Though his fans are already looking towards Royal Portrush and the Open Championship, there is one more round left at Pebble Beach. Woods will search for answers on the putting surfaces, to smooth some of the rough edges of the past three days. And despite his missed opportunities, Woods remains optimistic heading into the final round.
"Still gave myself a chance for tomorrow, which is positive. And we'll see what the weather forecast is for tomorrow. There are a lot of guys ahead of me right now," he said.