- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2003

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. — Jim Furyk has made a career of consistency. At the 103rd U.S. Open, that consistency is likely to make his career.

The 33-year-old Furyk carded a drama-dappled 67 yesterday at Olympia Fields, surging to 10 under in his quest for a first major championship, three strokes clear of unheralded Aussie Stephen Leaney entering today’s final round.

“I’m happy about the day,” said Furyk after shattering the Open’s 54-hole scoring record by three strokes. “I’m very comfortable with the way I’m playing, and I have a lot of confidence right now.”

The steady Furyk has never been much for colorful commentary. But his clubs have sure done some sweet talking through three rounds at Olympia Fields. While the rest of the field staggered around the layout’s suddenly stern back nine, Furyk held his ground yesterday, balancing a pair of bogeys [Nos. 10 and 17] with a pair of birdies that were unlikely enough to provoke a few fist pumps even from the reserved Furyk.

Furyk, who started the day tied atop the board with Vijay Singh at 7 under, authored his first lightning stroke with the blade at No.15. Leading Singh by a tenuous stroke entering the hole, Furyk coasted home a 50-footer that sent the gallery into a frenzy and propelled him to 10 under. As the ball dropped dead center, Furyk turned to face the grandstand behind the green and howled in ecstasy.

“Even I smile once in a while,” Furyk said of his reaction.

Furyk’s depth charge seemed to shake Singh, the two-time major champion from Fiji. Singh three-putted the next green to slump three behind, and then closed with a series of wayward shots and two more bogeys as the Chicago fans rallied around his less decorated playing partner.

After a three-putt bogey at the brutal 17th, Furyk then put an exclamation point on his third-round rout of Singh with another shocking salvo at the last, draining a 40-footer to take a stranglehold on the championship.

“That was definitely a good way to finish,” said Furyk, who beyond Leaney has a five-shot edge on Singh and Nick Price (both at 5 under). “The bogey at No.17 left a sour taste in my mouth. I don’t know how you leave a 5-footer short at the U.S. Open, but I did. That was a little bit of a bummer, so the putt on 18 was big.”

It was huge. The last four U.S. Open winners have been either leading or tied for the lead after 54 holes. Having a three-shot margin at an Open is an enormous luxury, particularly for a player like Furyk in search of his major breakthrough.

Few players have been more consistent than Furyk over the last few years. This season alone he has a tour-leading 10 top-10 finishes. And yet he doesn’t have any victories. In fact, Furyk has spent his entire career racking up strong finishes and a mountain of money but has just seven tour victories.

His record in the majors matches that trend almost perfectly. In 31 previous major starts, Furyk has 11 top-10 finishes but has never finished better than fourth.

“I think we all put more pressure on ourselves during these weeks because they are special, but I’ve tried to stay patient and wait for my turn,” Furyk said.

Leaney, a 34-year-old European Tour regular, might be the only player on the property now capable of preventing Furyk’s turn from coming. Leaney carded a solid 68 yesterday, joining Furyk as the only two players in the field to post three rounds in the 60s. But despite his play this week and three European Tour victories, Leaney has never been in the spotlight of a major’s final pairing.

“I’ve played in last groups before, and I’ve won tournaments before. But obviously I’m not kidding myself — those weren’t the U.S. Open,” said Leaney, who has managed to get up and down a staggering 14 of the 17 times that he’s missed greens this week. “I’ll certainly be nervous — I’m nervous over every shot — but I have a lot of faith in my game.”

Execution wins majors, not faith. And if Olympia Fields continues to get tougher today, executing the shots that soft greens made relatively simple over the first two rounds could be brutally difficult today.

Because of a freshening breeze and a full day of bright sunshine, the layout’s maligned greens finally began to firm up yesterday. Both holding greens and putting on them became a chore by afternoon. Just ask defending champion Tiger Woods (1 over), who needed what might be a career-worst 35 putts during his bid-ending 75 yesterday.

“I made absolutely nothing,” said a despondent Woods afterward.

Meanwhile, Furyk has made just about everything.

“And I have to keep playing aggressively tomorrow,” Furyk said. “Stephen Leaney doesn’t matter. Vijay Singh and Nick Price don’t matter. All that matters is that I go out and take care of my business on that golf course.”

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