Nick Faldo, the Big Apple's newest ambassador, improved the best score of the week at Bethpage Black to 66, four under par, in the third round of the 102nd US Open. Faldo, sporting the "I [heart] NY" cap he has been wearing during the championship, set the early clubhouse target at two over par after fully justifying his special invitation from the US Golf Association. Tiger Woods remained at the head of the field, however, extending his lead to four strokes despite bogeying the fifth hole as Padraig Harrington took a six there.
Faldo, playing in his 60th consecutive major championship, opened with a solid par round of 70 but then suffered like everyone else in the rain of Friday as he added a 76. His 10-stroke improvement yesterday came thanks to six birdies, four of them on the more difficult inward half to help make up for bogeys at the 12th and the 15th holes, two of the most demanding on the course.
"I had to keep reminding myself I was playing golf and not hiking through a jungle," Faldo said on Friday. "A machete would be very useful, or a grenade launcher if I could fire it straight."
Like the Faldo of old, the one who won six majors and lost a play-off to Curtis Strange at the US Open in 1987, straightness was his business yesterday. Without the incessant rain of the day before, scoring was slightly easier and Vijay Singh earlier matched the week's previous best of 67, set by Woods on Thursday and equalled by Shigeki Maruyama on Friday.
"I wish I could go straight to the first tee now for the final round," Faldo said. "I'd love to keep that momentum and mindset. Now I have to regroup tonight and come back tomorrow, but it would be great to play like that again. I only missed one fairway and one green, it was really something else."
The last champion to have received a special exemption was Hale Irwin in 1990, when Faldo just missed out on his playoff with Mike Donald. Irwin was then just 45, the age Faldo turns next month. "At the start of the week when it was firm and dry, I thought the way I was playing I could handle it," said Faldo, who has not won anywhere since 1997. "Then the rain came and it was out of my league. But I got back into it today. I was swinging it so well on the range. I worked with a little draw and hit good shot after good shot."
When is it too early to suggest to someone is aiming for the second leg of a potential Grand Slam? Never, apparently, where Woods is concerned, especially when one of your nearest challengers has virtually conceded defeat. Woods, one of the greatest collectors of records, landmarks and trivia, became only the seventh Masters champion to go on to take the halfway lead in the US Open.
That Woods, at five under par, did not have a greater lead was due solely to the dogged determination of Harrington, who matched Tiger's second-round 68 as the rain lashed down, to finish three behind. The Irishman's achievement was the greater as no one else got within seven strokes of the world No 1. Sergio Garcia had a particularly frustrating day as he slipped from his Thursday night position of one behind Woods with a 74.
While the challenge at all US Opens is less cerebral than at Augusta, where Woods out-thought his opponents on a course that allows for as many different shots as the imagination can conceive, it does not mean this particular championship does not mess with players' minds. Even Woods has struggled in the past, although he has appeared here as supremely confident, especially on the greens, as when he won at Pebble Beach two years ago.
The ever-increasing maturity of the kid once known as El Niño has been a feature of the last 12 months but clearly the process is not complete and Garcia got more and more agitated on Friday. As well as slamming his club down a number of times, the 22-year-old appeared to make a gesture to the crowd no doubt after one smart remark too many that certainly involved a fist and possibly a finger.
The source of his discontent should have been his putting. He took six more putts than the 25 of Thursday, exactly matching the increase in his score. But instead he blamed the weather, which was horrid all day and which might have been briefly halted in the afternoon at a Tour event. "It got to the point where it was a little extreme," Garcia said. "I was thinking, do we have to be swimming out here to stop play? I think there should have been a 45-minute break."
But revealingly, Garcia also added: "If Tiger Woods had been out there I think it would have been called off. It was probably three or four shots easier in the morning." The statistics proved Garcia wrong, the scores lowering marginally in the afternoon. Woods was the only player to break par in the morning and his two-round score of 135 only one outside the US Open record was eight better than anyone else on his side of the draw.
Garcia, whose girlfriend Martina Hingis knows about being at the top of a sport where someone else is dominating, continued: "If you are the best player in the world, you're playing well, you're making putts, when you hit it in the rough you always seem to get a lie, and you get the good side of the draw. If he doesn't win this week, I don't know what else can happen to him because the course is in perfect shape for him to win."
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