Johnson’s nightmare start gives McDowell his major opportunity

Was this the worst start by a final-round leader in major championship history? That was the question being asked here last night as, in four calamitous holes, Dustin Johnson turned a three-shot advantage into a three-shot deficit. After starting at six-under the quivering American walked on to the fifth tee at level par.

Johnson's jangling nerves had turned a supposed procession into stampede. The remarkable thing was he actually parred the first. The nightmare did not begin until the second. Here the 25-year-old threw away three shots when finding the fescue grass by a greenside bunker.

Johnson was forced to play the shot left-handed and could advance it but a few feet. His next chip seemed routine, but again its progress could be measured in inches. The next pitch was decent enough, but still he missed the three-footer. In the space of a mad few minutes his lead had disappeared.

Soon, so too had his ball as the 36-handicapper farce unfolded. His tee-shot on the third went so far left nobody ever found it. In the event he did well to limit the damage to a double-bogey six. For a few seconds the outright leader became McDowell, the Ulsterman trying to become the first European winner of the US Open in 40 years. But then he was joined by Ernie Els, the South African negotiating his opening six holes in three-under. It was a thrilling surge by the Big Easy as he aimed for his major in eight years, his first US Open in 13 years. But did he really suspect it would be enough to take him to the top of the leaderboard? Nobody could have predicted what carnage would befall Johnson.

The poor man drove into a hazard on the fourth as well. Another dropped shot. Now the challengers were lining up – Phil Mickelson, Gregory Havret, Davis Love. And even though he had suffered three bogeys in his first six holes they also included Tiger Woods. "It's been awhile," he had said before teeing off. Indeed, it had. He could finally feel like a golfer again – in contention and in the headlines. This time for golfing reasons.

Whatever was to come to pass on this dramatic Sunday on this equally dramatic Monterey Peninsula, to many Woods had already made his statement. To them his third-round 66 had bellowed an unarguable "I'm back."

Yes, the Tiger roars had returned and for those emotional seconds as he walked off to the 18th green the scandal which devastated his wonderful life was forgotten. Squint your eyes, overlook the bald patch, and it could even have been 2000 again. The coverage had been timed to go out on Saturday night television in New York; Woods had returned to primetime.

Even his biggest doubters had to tip their visor to a performance which was staggering in both its nerve and its execution. Johnny Miller, a former US Open champion himself, was in the NBC tower and was stunned by the recovery from a terrible opening to recording a remarkable five-under 31 on Pebble's feared back nine. At the start of the championship, Miller had all but dismissed the chances of the 14-time major winner, saying he required "a minor miracle". Well, here it was. But there was nothing minor about it.

"That may be the best nine holes Tiger has ever played," reflected Miller. Like everyone here he was most impressed by the 270-yard approach to the par-five 18th when he ignored the tree straight in front of him and the Pacific Ocean to the left and faded in a three wood to 20 feet. "That took my breath away," said Miller. "It was a superhuman shot. It was like the Tiger of 2000. He had that Tiger stare going again, plus that cat-like concentration. And he had some great crowd reaction, which must have pleased him."

Woods admitted that he had missed the whooping and hollering. "I hadn't played good enough for anyone to cheer for anything," he said. "So it was nice to actually put it together on the back nine and put myself right back in the championship. And everyone was just so excited and fired up that it was just a great atmosphere for play in front of." Since he returned from his self-enforced break, Woods has maintained that he will return to his mastery only when the fun returns. As Miller said: "This was as fun as it gets."It is a mood he will seek to revisit at next month's Open Championship. St Andrews happens to be Woods's favourite course on earth and Miller believes his mind is already on the Old Course. Purely on Saturday's form he would be unstoppable.

US Open Championship, Pebble Beach Golf Club, Pebble Beach, California

US unless stated, par 71

Early final round scores

291 B Curtis 78 70 75 68.

292 P Hanson (Swe) 73 76 74 69; S Langley 75 69 77 71; L Westwood (Eng) 74 71 76 71; J Furyk 72 75 74 71.

293 S Garcia (Sp) 73 76 73 71; S Micheel 69 77 75 72.

294 R Barnes 73 76 73 71.

295 S Appleby (Aus) 73 76 76 70.

296 J Dufner 72 73 79 72; D Toms 71 75 76 74; R Moore 75 73 75 73; K Perry 72 77 73 74.

297 S-y Noh (S Kor) 74 72 76 75; B Van Pelt 72 75 82 68; R McGowan (Eng) 72 73 78 74; V Singh (Fiji) 74 72 75 76.

298 C Stroud 77 72 76 73; R Cabrera Bello (Sp) 70 75 81 72; J Herman 76 73 81 68; J Gore 76 73 74 75; T Jaidee (Thai) 74 75 74 75; J Allred 72 73 76 77; S Verplank 72 74 75 77.

299 S Stricker 75 74 77 73; R Goosen (SA) 75 74 76 74; L Glover 73 73 77 76; H Fujita (Japan) 72 77 74 76; Y Ikeda (Japan) 77 72 73 77.

300 J Kelly 72 70 81 77; E Axley 75 73 75 77; G Maybin (NIrl) 74 75 76 75; S Wheatcroft 74 73 77 76; T Taniguchi (Japan) 73 76 76 75.

301 E Justesen 74 74 80 73.

302 C Villegas (Col) 78 69 79 76; M Bettencourt 72 74 77 79; F Funk 74 72 77 79; D Duval 75 73 74 80.

303 K Jones 73 76 78 76; R Davies (Wal) 78 70 79 76.

305 N Watney 76 71 77 81.

306 Z Johnson 72 77 78 79; M Richardson (Eng) 73 75 80 78; C Barlow 73 75 77 81.

307 M Weir (Can) 70 79 83 75; T Tryon 75 74 78 80.

311 J Preeo 75 70 82 84; P Martin (Sp) 73 76 83 79.



Leading third-round scores

207 D Johnson 71 70 66.

210 G McDowell (NIrl) 71 68 71.

212 T Woods 74 72 66.

213 E Els (SA) 73 68 72; G Havret (Fr) 73 71 69.

214 P Mickelson 75 66 73.

216 R Ishikawa (Japan) 70 71 75; T Clark (SA) 72 72 72; A Cejka (Ger) 70 72 74.

217 S O'Hair 76 71 70; D Love III 75 74 68; M Kaymer (Ger) 74 71 72.

218 S Kjeldsen (Den) 72 71 75; J Leonard 72 73 73; B Snedeker 75 74 69.

219 B De Jonge 69 73 77; C Schwartzel (SA) 74 71 74; R Henley 73 74 72; T Watson 78 71 70; P Casey (Eng) 69 73 77; J Mallinger 77 72 70; E Molinari (It) 75 72 72.

220 K J Choi (S Kor) 70 73 77; I Poulter (Eng) 70 73 77; L Donald (Eng) 71 75 74; M Kuchar 74 72 74; S Cink 76 73 71; R Gates 75 74 71; P Harrington (Irl) 73 73 74.

221 J Allred 72 73 76; A Cabrera (Arg) 75 72 74; S Micheel 69 77 75; R Karlsson (Swe) 75 72 74; S Langley 75 69 77; S Marino 73 75 73; V Singh (Fiji) 74 72 75; R Allenby (Aus) 74 74 73; J Furyk 72 75 74; S Verplank 72 74 75; L Westwood (Eng) 74 71 76; H Stenson (Swe) 77 70 74.

222 R Barnes 72 76 74; K Perry 72 77 73; S-y Noh (S Kor) 74 72 76; S Garcia (Sp) 73 76 73; Y Ikeda (Japan) 77 72 73; D Toms 71 75 76; D Duval 75 73 74.

223 J Kelly 72 70 81; L Glover 73 73 77; E Axley 75 73 75; B Curtis 78 70 75; F Funk 74 72 77; M Bettencourt 72 74 77; H Fujita (Japan) 72 77 74; T Jaidee (Thai) 74 75 74; P Hanson (Swe) 73 76 74; R McGowan (Eng) 72 73 78; J Gore 76 73 74; R Moore 75 73 75.

224 N Watney 76 71 77; J Dufner 72 73 79; S Wheatcroft 74 73 77.

225 C Stroud 77 72 76; R Goosen (SA) 75 74 76; C Barlow 73 75 77; G Maybin (NIrl) 74 75 76; T Taniguchi (Japan) 73 76 76; S Appleby (Aus) 73 76 76.

226 S Stricker 75 74 77; C Villegas (Col) 78 69 79; R Cabrera Bello (Sp) 70 75 81.

227 K Jones 73 76 78; Z Johnson 72 77 78; J Preeo 75 70 82; T Tryon 75 74 78; R Davies (Wal) 78 70 79.

228 E Justesen 74 74 80; M Richardson (Eng) 73 75 80.

229 B Van Pelt 72 75 82.

230 J Herman 76 73 81.

232 M Weir (Can) 70 79 83; P Martin (Sp) 73 76 83.

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