TULSA, Okla. -- Retief Goosen and Stewart Cink have never been so close to winning a major championship. Tiger Woods has rarely been so far.
After a day of swift changes of fortune, Goosen scrambled for par on six of his final eight holes and Cink recovered from a disastrous start to share the lead Saturday in the U.S. Open.
They were pursued by a half-dozen others still in the hunt for their first major, players like Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson and David Duval. Also in the pack were one-time PGA champions Mark Brooks and Paul Azinger.
The notable absence was Woods.
He finally broke par at Southern Hills with a 69 that only left him in the same spot where he started the round -- nine strokes back and wearing an unfamiliar label.
This could be the end of the most spectacular streak in golf -- four straight majors, five of the last six.
Not that Cink cared.
''I don't think many players are thinking about any streaks right now,'' said Cink, whose 67 made him the only player to break par each of the first three rounds. ''If I win this tournament, I'll have satisfied my goal this year, and I'll have satisfied a goal that's been out there my whole career.''
Goosen had to fight off some early nerves, but a spectacular short game saved him on the back nine. He took only 13 putts in the final 10 holes and had a 69.
''If I can win this tournament, obviously it would be the greatest feat of my career,'' said Goosen, a four-time winner on the European tour. ''I'm just going to try to enjoy every moment of it.''
It should be a lot easier without Woods around to supply even more heat.
Woods hit too many bumps and missed too many putts to make any kind of a charge. All he needs now is the greatest comeback in U.S. Open history to claim a fifth straight major, a task that seems out of reach considering there are 22 other players in front of him.
''It's a tough spot,'' Woods said. ''But you know what? If I go out there and play a good, solid round tomorrow, you never know.''
The better odds belong to those a lot closer to the top.
Garcia twice answered bogeys with birdies on the back nine and had a 68, leaving him one stroke behind. Walking up the hill after finishing his round, he glanced back at the leaderboard and smiled. At 21, he is in great shape to become the youngest U.S. Open champion since Bobby Jones, who also did it at age 21 in 1923.
Also at 206 was Brooks (70) and Rocco Mediate, who has never finished higher than 18th in a major but turned in a 67.
Mickelson gets another chance, too. He spent his 31st birthday Saturday making the kind of mistakes that have cost him in other majors -- such as a three-putt from 8 feet on No. 13 to turn potential eagle into a par.
Still, he had a 68 and was only two strokes back, well within range.
''I shot 2-under par on Saturday at the U.S. Open, and I'm by no means disappointed,'' Mickelson said.
It surely didn't upset him that Woods was far behind. Mickelson, who finished third behind Woods at the Masters, even made light of the situation. When asked whether Woods had a chance, he asked how far back he was -- 4-over 214, nine shots behind.
''I guess everybody at 4 over has a chance,'' Mickelson replied.
Duval (71) and Azinger (69) were at 210.
The biggest U.S. Open comeback belongs to Arnold Palmer, who charged from seven strokes behind in 1960 to win at Cherry Hills.
Woods recited some other great rallies -- Johnny Miller with his 63 at Oakmont in 1973 to jump past a dozen players, and the greatest comeback in major championship history when Paul Lawrie made up 10 strokes at Carnoustie on final day of the 1999 British Open.
Lawrie had Jean Van de Velde. Woods doesn't look like he'll get that kind of help.
Goosen, a cool customer from South Africa, finished with nine straight pars, none of them particularly easy.
And history is on his side. Southern Hills has seen wire-to-wire winner in four of its other five major championships.
Cink might rely on momentum.
Starting two shots behind, he was 3 over on his first two holes and in a free fall. He turned it around quickly with four straight birdies, and set himself up for a chance at his first major.
For a group of players who have rarely been in this position, the big test will come Sunday on a course that is getting firmer and faster.
''You might see a lot of bogeys made by everybody,'' Cink said. ''It's kind of hard to predict. But it will be exciting -- that's almost guaranteed.''
Just about anything is possible in this U.S. Open, a far cry from last year when Woods won by 15 strokes and left everyone else fighting for second.
J.L. Lewis, tied for the lead with Goosen and Brooks after two rounds, staggered to a 77 and dropped out of sight. Of course, he was still one stroke better than Woods.
Woods' best hope was for Southern Hills to chew up the leaders, most of whom were just getting started when he called it a day.
Instead, they went on the attack.
Goosen, Garcia, Mickelson and Cink all played the front nine under par, with a collection of steady play and great recoveries.
Mickelson birdied three of his first five holes for a brief share of the lead. Garcia hit a few bumps in the bunker, but holed a spectacular putt for birdie that rolled behind the cup and then dropped.
There's nothing exciting about Goosen.
Then again, that's not what the U.S. Open is all about.
''Nobody is going to be perfect,'' Brooks said upon arriving at Southern Hill. ''There's going to be a lot of mistakes made by everybody.''
Woods wasted no time making his.
For the third straight round, he failed to find short grass with his first tee shot. This one landed in at the base of a steep-faced bunker, leaving him no chance to reach the green. His pitch was 25 feet short and he took bogey.
There were times when Woods appeared poised to make a charge, particularly with a purely struck 3-iron from 232 yards on the par-3 eighth hole, a high draw that stopped 4 feet away from the toughest hole location on the golf course.
There were bogeys waiting for him, though. His ball was buried in the thick collar of a bunker on No. 9, and he had to make a 5-footer for bogey. He also chopped up No. 12 and had to make a nice pitched up the shaved slope to save another bogey.
''He's been missing a lot of fairways, and when Tiger is right, he can hit fairways that are 10 yards wide,'' Scott Hoch said.
No one is willing to count him out just yet. Woods has been making history from the time he turned pro. Another amazing chapter this week would rank as the greatest yet.
''If he wins this tournament, he'll be my idol, that's for sure,'' Garcia said.
© 2017. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us