Johnson holds off inspired Woods

Tiger Woods is back. The real Tiger Woods, that is. It was impossible to look at it any other way as the world No 1 turned in a performance yesterday which ranked right up there with his best and his gutsiest. A 66 took him to one-under and into third place, five behind the leader Dustin Johnson and two behind Graeme McDowell in second.

Yet the bare stats don’t begin to tell the whole story of his Resurrection Saturday. He started it seven off McDowell and five off his nemesis, Phil Mickelson (who had shot his own 66 on Friday). Not only that but two bogeys in the first three holes left him nine behind. At the stage he was in among the dead men, seemingly still plagued by the personal shame. But then he sprang into life, playing the next 16 holes in seven-under.

Three birdies in three holes from the fourth hinted of the fireworks to come, Except another bogey on the eight led him to turn at four-over. It was here where the old Tiger juices began to flow again. He came back in a five-under 31, an almost unthinkable number on the inward nine. The putts dropped and soon the jaws of the gallery followed suit. But it was on the final three holes where his renewed magnificence truly sent the mind back to a time before the sex scandal.

On the 16th, a 20-footer was greeted by a fist pump and on the demanding par-three 17th, he holed a 15-footer down the hill which had at least seven-foot of break. He marched to the 18th tee and drove across Stillwater Cove with the cheers still ringing loud. Yet his approach to the par five was seemingly blocked out by a tree in the middle of the fairway. No problem. Woods somehow managed to evade the branches and so faded a three-wood on to the green some 250 yards away. It was classic Tiger as was the celebration with his caddie, Steve Williams.

Perhaps in his most dominant days he would have holed the eagle putt; but nobody could moan. Certainly not the grandstand who roared for the fallen hero louder than any crowd has since his comeback two months ago. In truth, there was plenty on his scorecard to warrant the frenzy. On the first two days Woods managed just three birdies; yesterday he conjured eight, finally finding the secret to the poa annua which he criticised so severely and so inadvisably on the first day. In doing so Woods leapt up from a tie for 25th. His matter-of-fact statement afterwards did not begin to do his own heroics justice.

“I was just trying to get back to even par or one-over for the championship - I managed to do something better than that,” said Woods when asked what his game-plan was after his nightmare start. “I told myself this is the US Open just keep hanging in there. It’s a long haul.”

Woods was wise not to get too carried away. After all, he has never won a major when behind after three rounds. At least he has Mickelson in his wing mirror, the player who has beaten him in the last six tournaments in which the pair have both played. The left-hander’s 73 meant there was a seven-shot swing yesterday, although on one-over par the Masters champion is not quite out of it. There is so much to play for today, other than majors and millions. Mickelson could usurp Woods as world No 1.

But he will have to leapfrog not only Woods, but France’s Gregory Havret on level par. And then he would still have to find a way past Johnson and McDowell, which will be no easy task on the evidence of yesterday. Johnson looked ominously relaxed - on the course which he should really refer to as “home“ - in his own 66 to move to six-under. A huge hitter - who Woods refers to as “stupid long“ - Johnson clearly has as a rich future and nobody here will be surprised if it is realised today.

McDowell began like a man inspired, birdieing the first two and at the stage had extended his overnight advantage to four. But Johnson knows what it takes at Pebble Beach - having won the last two AT&T Pro-Ams to be played here - and was soon on terms thanks in large part to an eagle on the drivable par-four fourth. From there the final grouping pulled themselves along, holding a number of clutch putts.

Alas, there were slip-ups down the stretch for McDowell when he bogeyed the 16th and 17th. But otherwise it was a commendable stuff, particularly as Johnson is about six inches taller and 40 yards longer off the tee. McDowell’s win two weeks ago in Wales has plainly imbued him with the confidence he needed and there has been a swagger this week which suggests he believes he could become the first European winner of this trophy in 40 years. The 30-year-old is in the mix and what a mix it is.

Could Woods really shake off all that rust and ridicule to win another US Open at the scene of his most impressive success a decade ago? This spectacular links was agog with the possibility last night.

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