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Tiger watches front-running spot fade away after poor Round 3

by | Senior Golf Columnist
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Woods and Jim Furyk go in different directions as only one holds his spot atop the leaderboard. (Getty Images)  
Woods and Jim Furyk go in different directions as only one holds his spot atop the leaderboard. (Getty Images)  

SAN FRANCISCO -- The shock of having watched the former world No. 1 stub a chip shot had barely worn off when a voice rang out from the packed, buzzing gallery of 10,000 fans ringing the 18th hole at Olympic Club.

It was a final cruel slap after an admittedly unkind day.

"Hey, Jim," a male fan bellowed, "who's that guy you're playing with?"

Anonymity and Tiger Woods have rarely been used in the same sentence over his mercurial career, but the fan made his point, albeit in rude, brusque fashion. With a sloppy 5-over 75, Woods moved from front-running favorite to punching-bag fall guy in 18 uneasy holes at the 112th U.S. Open on Saturday night.

112th U.S. Open: Round 3
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Woods had managed to win times in eight of nine tries when holding the 36-hole lead at the four major championships, and he began the third round with a share of the lead. He bogeyed three of the first six holes, only managed one birdie, and will start Sunday five strokes off the lead.

"I'm definitely still in the ballgame," Woods said, seeming surprisingly chipper. "I'm only five back and that's certainly doable on this golf course for sure."

We'll present the evidence and let you decide whether he's whistling in the graveyard. Outside of the one fan who gave him the catcall, there's certainly room for argument.

Of the last 11 twosomes off the tee on Saturday, only one player shot a higher score. A 17-year-old amateur whipped him by five shots. Worse, he dropped into a tie for 14th, with a slew of decorated past U.S. Open winners either tied or in front of him, like Graeme McDowell, Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen.

Woods came from four shots down in the final round to win in scintillating fashion at the Memorial Tournament two weeks ago, making birdies on three of the last four holes. Whether there will be nearly that many birdie opportunities, on a brutally difficult Open track, is open to conjecture.

But skewing, like one of the tilted Olympic fairways, toward no.

"It's just a few birdies here and there," Woods insisted. "It's not like where you have to go out there and shoot 62 and 63. This is a U.S. Open. You just need to hang around.

"First you need to get off to a good start. Get through the first six."

This time around, he didn't. Woods bogeyed three of the holes, which came as a jarring reminder to some that while he still has flashes of his former brilliance, it's been maddeningly intermittent and decidedly unpredictable over the past two years.

A throng of fans and media types congregated around the practice area and first tee to see him off on what seemed destined to become his 15th major title. Mark O'Meara was spotted on the range. Former Stanford teammate Casey Martin, who roomed with Woods on road trips, stood on the first tee with his cell phone hiked over his head, filming Woods' opening tee shot.

Martin was gushing about how well Woods had played all week, including in the two practice rounds they played before the tournament.

"It was flawless," Martin said. "Look out."

Turns out, that was more of an admonition for the fans.

For the first time all week, Woods lost control of his tee shots, missing seven of 14 fairways -- the same number he had tallied in the first two days combined. In fact, his lone birdie of the day came when he yanked a driver into the ankle-deep grass and took a beaver-pelt-sized divot, sending the all trundling onto the green. He sank a 15-footer, easily the longest putt of the day.

Pardon the zoological reference -- we haven't even addressed the real elephant in the Tiger room. Woods has never won a major when trailing after 54 holes, and hasn't won a Grand Slam event since the 2008 U.S. Open. We all know what's happened since then -- the story has filled up America's bookshelves.

By the back nine, Woods seemed to be losing his oft-celebrated patience. After a poor 2-iron shot off the 14th tee, he let the club fly to the ground on the follow-through, then stood there for several seconds staring at the offending stick on the ground.

On the brutish 16th, measuring 670 yards, he carved a slice into a series of tall cypress. Just as it seemed the ball would scoot through, it caught a tiny part of the last branch, sending Woods into a muttering, profane diatribe. He didn't salvage par.

The 18th was the denouement. After splitting the fairway with an iron off the tee, Woods hit a mediocre wedge shot -- a club that has dogged him all year -- that failed to find the green, and was caught in the long grass near the flagstick.

In a do-or-die chip, Woods stuck the club in the ground and the ball moved about 18 inches forward, before catching a slope and falling dead sideways, tricking away from the hole, farther from any reasonable chance of salvation. Sorta like Woods' day in microcosm, really.

He missed that one, too.

"I just had a brutal lie," he said. "It was either a take a full swing at that thing or just try and play some kind of if it comes out flubbing a little bit then I'm going to be where I'm at."

Where he's at is in an unenviable position.

After two rounds when he seemed in total control, Woods was wrestling to keep his head above water, a decent analogy for a course located about 500 yards from the cold Pacific Ocean.

"It's just frustrating when I know I can put myself in position to have a few good looks, at least a few more, and I got to bury those," he said.

Instead, he might have buried his chances of winning in that sidehill, sandhill course called Olympic Club.

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