- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 16, 2002

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. Game on.
For the first time during this week's U.S. Open, Tiger Woods acted like a mere mortal yesterday, scrambling his way to a third-round 70 that provided final-act hope to a once-desperate field.
"I wasn't swinging the club anywhere near as well as I was the first two days, but I hung in there," said Woods, who birdied two of the final four holes at Bethpage Black to salvage an even-par afternoon and remain 5 under for the championship. "I'm very happy now because even though some other players made a run and played great rounds at a U.S. Open, I look at the leader board, and I actually increased my lead."
True enough. Woods began the day with a three-stroke edge on Ireland's Padraig Harrington (73) and exited four strokes clear of Sergio Garcia (67). But somewhere just below the surface, the 26-year-old Woods certainly knows that's an overly sunny take on the events of the overcast day.
For one thing, the Black Course was in a relatively giving mood yesterday, allowing 13 players to post sub-par salvos. That's a stark contrast from Friday's play, when a deluge turned the 7,214-yard, par-70 layout into a lake that drowned most of the field and yielded only three red-number performances. But Woods didn't take advantage of the easiest scoring day of the tournament his heretofore blazing flat stick finally cooled to a pedestrian 32-putt effort.
"It's not so much that I didn't putt well. I just didn't hit it close enough to make any putts," said Woods, who bogeyed Nos.5 and 11 with uncharacteristic misses from six feet and gave away another stroke with a three-putt par at the 13th. "It took me 15 holes to make a birdie. It was just one of those days when you have to manufacture a score without your best stuff."
Woods did just that by clawing back to level-par with successful midrange birdie strikes at Nos.15 and 17. But by that point, the damage already had been done to his aura of invincibility.
Harrington, now 1over, might have fallen down the board, but a far more formidable pair spent the day marching up it, feeding off the groans of Woods' massive gallery behind them. Both Garcia (1under) and Phil Mickelson (even), perhaps Woods' most consistent challengers during the last two years, capitalized on the prime scoring conditions, spurting into striking distance with 67s.
"It was nice to see Phil doing it in front of me and knowing it could be done," said the 22-year-old Garcia, who has struck the ball better than anyone this week but finds himself in arrears thanks to four misses from inside 10 feet yesterday. "It was quite a thrill to get back in the tournament. We'll see if we can give him another nice run tomorrow and make it exciting."
Today's finale would have to provide some riveting theater to be any more exciting than yesterday's closing stretch. At one particularly explosive moment, Mickelson drained a 20-footer at No.17 to reach 1under just seconds before Garcia followed suit with a sliding putt at the 16th. At the time, Woods was 2over for the day and still in search of his first birdie. And it must have been an ominous feeling for Woods finally to have to suffer the thunderous, rolling echoes of applause that so often have accompanied his charges.
"It was beautiful out there when the gallery got swept up in it, and both Sergio and I were gaining ground," said Mickelson, who bogeyed the final hole to fall out of today's final pairing. "Now maybe Tiger knows what it feels like."
Perhaps that hunted feeling was a new one for Woods, but he reacted like a proven champion with his closing birdies. And while Garcia, Mickelson and six other players now within seven shots certainly left the property glowing after Woods' display of fallibility, a mountain of work and long odds still will greet them today.
Woods has never blown a lead of three strokes or more in any tournament (11-0), much less in a major. He's the consummate killer closer. Mickelson and Garcia, on the other hand, are still seeking their major breakthroughs.
"Oh, I know it's not going to be easy, but it's not over yet," said Garcia, who attained instant superstar status when he swapped shots with Woods until the final hole at the 1999 PGA Championship. "I'm really looking forward to it whatever happens. If I shoot 150, I'm not going to care. I'm just going to enjoy the moment and try to have fun."
That could be somewhat difficult for the young Spaniard, who suffered extraordinary verbal abuse from the New York fans yesterday. Continuously distracted by the galleries' running commentary on his relationship with tennis star Martina Hingis and his protracted preshot routine of multiple regrips, Garcia burst out at the fans Friday, flipping them off and screaming at them in Spanish. He paid the price for the gesture yesterday, and he's likely to get more of the same today.
Adding even more tension to today's scene, Garcia also whined about the USGA's supposed favoritism toward Woods in his Friday news conference. He left Woods a letter of apology in his locker yesterday, but there isn't likely to be much conversation between the pair today.
"I don't think he's a guy who likes to talk too much on a Sunday at a major championship anyway," Garcia said. "That's why we have a caddie, so we can talk to him."


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