Lee Westwood is one off the lead going into today’s final round of the US Open and is tantalisingly close to becoming the first European winner of the Championship in 38 yards. The only problem happens to be the identity and the magical form of the golfer who he will be playing alongside and chasing here this afternoon.
Tiger Woods is on three-under and doing ridiculous deeds and everyone knows that when the world no 1 is at the top of leaderboard on the last day he wins. In his 13 major victories to date, Woods has always gone into the climatic 18 holding, or sharing, the advantage. If Westwood is not to become just another statistic he will likely have to play the round of his life here in San Diego.
There are a few factors working in Westwood’s favour, not least the remarkable consistency he has shown of this ferocious layout this past three days. Woods is injured, very injured as yesterday proved. Three times he doubled up in agony - after tee-shots on the 15th and the 17th and following his approach on the 18th - and lesser men would have limped straight in there and then. But Woods toughed it out and watched his bravery rewarded with three more jaw-dropping moments to add to the legend.
While Westwood was the overall performer of the day, displaying a range of holeside-chipping and clutch-putting that most in the game believed was beyond him, Woods was, as always, the star attraction. Following his incredible half of 30 on Friday, the Tiger was once up to his miraculous tricks coming in, despite the discomfort in his left knee that was all too obvious.
On the par-five 13th he holed a 60-foot putt down the green for an eagle; on the 17th he pitched in, on the second bounce; on the 18th he canned another monster for another eagle. The packed galleries went wild as Woods perfected yet another fist pump. He genuinely is the best competitor the world of sport has ever seen. No arguments.
Of course, what makes this US Open different is the physical handicap he has been toiling under. While Woods has played down the soreness he has been feeling after his operation nine weeks ago, he could not disguise it on moving day when even the slightest motion provoked a grimace. How he manages to block out the impending pain and stays focused on the shot in hand is anyone’s guess. So, too, is his ability to shake off the rust of such a long absence from competition.
After four holes yesterday he was three over after a start as sloppy as those he suffered on Thursday and Friday. Yet where others panic, Woods simply rectifies and if anything this third round of 70 was even more awe-inspiring than the 68 on Friday. From at one stage being six of the lead, he somehow finished a gripping afternoon one ahead of Westwood, who was the only other player in contention to break par with his own 70.
In third is Rocco Mediate on one-under, but the manner in which the veteran American fell backwards after holding a three-shot lead with six to play suggests that this could be a two-horse race. As easy as it is to say, and as difficult it is to achieve, Westwood must play his own game today and not be drawn into a battle with Woods. That would be golfing suicide.
The Englishman is certainly hitting his drives more accurately than Woods. Dare it be mentioned, but on at least three occasions yesterday the American was the beneficiary of outrageous fortune as his tee-shots veered so wide they located the trampled-down supporters’ areas. Yet surely the point is how Woods, like Severiano Ballesteros before him, makes the most of his breaks. The 13th was a case in point when he muscled a quiet spectacular five-iron over the pin from a prohibitive angle. It defied many things, including logic.
Yes, with Woods in this mood it would take a tremendous leap of faith to back Westwood to fill the void stretching back to Tony Jacklin’s success at Hazeltine in 1970. But the 35-year-old from Mansfield is a fine closer of tournaments himself who has improved his short-game immeasurably since linking up with the former professional Mark Roe. Furthermore, Woods admitted afterwards that the pain is getting worse and even this superhuman cannot ignore the agony forever. Except, except…
It seems written that Woods will apply finishing touches to this mission impossible. If he does so it will be deemed to be his greatest major victory to date. And so it should be. An indication of how tough Torrey Pines was playing yesterday came in a few of his rivals’ scores. Phil Mickelson, the world No 2 he fairly squashed in their head-to-head of the opening two rounds, slumped to a 76, while Luke Donald went one worse with a 77.
In fact, only Woods and Westwood strode forwards and it is right they should square off today. This has been one hell of a US Open at one hell of a venue, where the gasps and cheers have rang out like never before at a tournament that has become such a slog. Woods has hauled the year’s second major into wonderland and in many respects, Westwood is simply honoured to be playing alongside this one-off.
But he cannot go out there thinking that on high Sunday. If he does he will suffer the same fate as all those other unfortunates before.
Collated third round scores and totals (USA unless stated, par 71)
210 Tiger Woods 72 68 70
211 Lee Westwood (Eng) 70 71 70
212 Rocco Mediate 69 71 72
214 Geoff Ogilvy (Aus) 69 73 72, D.J. Trahan 72 69 73
215 Robert Karlsson (Swe) 70 70 75, Hunter Mahan 72 74 69, Robert Allenby (Aus) 70 72 73, Miguel Angel Jimenez (Spa) 75 66 74, Camilo Villegas (Col) 73 71 71
216 John Merrick 73 72 71, Sergio Garcia (Spa) 76 70 70, Ernie Els (Rsa) 70 72 74, Mike Weir (Can) 73 74 69
217 Davis Love III 72 69 76, Oliver Wilson (Eng) 72 71 74, Brandt Jobe 73 75 69, Brandt Snedeker 76 73 68
218 Aaron Baddeley (Aus) 74 73 71, Jim Furyk 74 71 73, Martin Kaymer (Ger) 75 70 73, Scott Verplank 72 72 74, Stuart Appleby (Aus) 69 70 79
219 Patrick Sheehan 71 74 74, Rodney Pampling (Aus) 74 70 75, Robert Dinwiddie (Eng) 73 71 75, Eric Axley 69 79 71, Jeff Quinney 79 70 70, Anthony Kim 74 75 70, Ryuji Imada (Jpn) 74 75 70, Boo Weekley 73 76 70, Luke Donald (Eng) 71 71 77, Carl Pettersson (Swe) 71 71 77, Tim Clark (Rsa) 73 72 74
220 Steve Stricker 73 76 71, Rory Sabbatini (Rsa) 73 72 75, Michael Thompson 74 73 73, Chad Campbell 77 72 71, Trevor Immelman (Rsa) 75 73 72, Joe Ogilvie 71 76 73, David Toms 76 72 72
221 Dustin Johnson 74 72 75, Adam Scott (Aus) 73 73 75, Andres Romero (Arg) 71 73 77, Woody Austin 72 72 77, Todd Hamilton 74 74 73
222 Stewart Cink 72 73 77, Matt Kuchar 73 73 76, Andrew Svoboda 77 71 74, Jon Mills (Can) 72 75 75, Phil Mickelson 71 75 76, D.A. Points 74 71 77, John Rollins 75 68 79, Justin Leonard 75 72 75, Brett Quigley 73 72 77, Retief Goosen (Rsa) 76 69 77, Padraig Harrington (Irl) 78 67 77
223 Pat Perez 75 73 75, Daniel Chopra (Swe) 73 75 75, Jarrod Lyle (Aus) 75 74 74, Bart Bryant 75 70 78, Justin Hicks 68 80 75, Alastair Forsyth (Sco) 76 73 74, Heath Slocum 75 74 74, Kevin Streelman 68 77 78
224 Derek Fathauer 73 73 78, Ben Crane 75 72 77, Soren Hansen (Den) 78 70 76, Ian Leggatt (Can) 72 76 76
225 Nick Watney 73 75 77, Paul Casey (Eng) 79 70 76, Vijay Singh (Fij) 71 78 76, Rickie Fowler 70 79 76, Stephen Ames (Can) 74 74 77
226 John Mallinger 73 75 78, Ross McGowan (Eng) 76 72 78, Jesper Parnevik (Swe) 77 72 77
227 Chris Kirk 75 74 78
228 Rich Beem 74 74 80, Andrew Dresser 76 73 79