SAN FRANCISCO – The expectations came back before Tiger Woods did.
For the longest time, there was a sense of inevitability about Woods when he was in front going into the weekend at a major championship. Eight times he had the outright lead after 36 holes, and eight times he went on to win, a streak that Y.E. Yang finally ended in 2009 at the PGA Championship.
The circumstances were slightly different Saturday at the U.S. Open.
This was the first time Woods has shared the lead at a major going into the third round, and the other leaders have some experience.
Jim Furyk won the U.S. Open nine years ago at Olympia Fields, where he had a chance to set the 72-hole scoring record until meaningless bogeys on the last two holes. David Toms is 11 years removed from his lone major at the PGA Championship, though not quickly forgotten is the resolve he showed. With the gallery one-sided in its support of Phil Mickelson, Toms laid up on the 18th hole at Atlanta Athletic Club and made a 12-foot par to win.
The other difference?
This is 2012.
Woods removed his cap on the putting green Thursday, revealing an increasingly receding hair line. That was always going to be a losing battle, though it was a subtle reminder that Woods is not the 24-year-old who completed the career Grand Slam at St. Andrews, nor was this the 30-year-old who won consecutive majors.
He is 36.
He has gone through four operations on his left knee.
He has gone through public scrutiny of a very private life.
In some respects, this week could be the start of a new era for Woods, who will always be compared against his old era.
This business of the "new Tiger" looking like the "old Tiger" needs to stop, for no other reason than the new Tiger is older. For all this talk about whether Woods is really back, he has won two times this year on the PGA Tour, and that's as many as anyone else. Woods won five times in 2003 and it used to be called a slump because it didn't include a major championship.
So now Woods is among the leaders going into the third round at The Olympic Club, and the expectations are that he will win the U.S. Open for a record-tying fourth time, and finally get to his 15th major in his delayed pursuit of Jack Nicklaus.
Woods' mother is at Olympic this week, and she rarely goes anywhere but the Masters and Honda Classic, her new home. Maybe she's onto something.
Then again, it's hard to imagine Woods not expecting the same thing.
If a 70 in the U.S. Open at Olympic is equivalent to a 66 at a regular PGA Tour event, then this would be a stretch of golf that should get some attention. He closed with a 67 to win at Memorial, then joined Furyk and Toms as the only players who have not gone over par this week.
"It's one thing to have a game plan, but you also have to execute the game plan," Woods said. "And I think that's one of the reasons why I was so excited about how I hit the ball at Memorial, because that's what I needed to play here. I hit the ball so well there and the different trajectories, that was big for me. And to come here and then be able to shape it like this — because I have to, I have to shape it here — I've done a pretty good job of that for the first two days."
Perhaps it helps that he has two players whose game he admires joining him as the only golfers who remain under par.
Woods thinks so much of the Furyk's toughness that he finally got his wish to have Furyk as a partner in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. A few years ago, Woods was presented one of those age-old hypothetical questions: If his life depended on someone making a 15-foot putt, and he couldn't pick himself or Nicklaus, which player would he choose? Among the names he eventually mentioned was Toms.
The lesser-known players have proved far more dangerous over the years.
Bob May took him to a playoff at Valhalla in the 2000 PGA Championship. Woods had to hole one of the biggest putts of his life at Torrey Pines just to get into a U.S. Open playoff with Rocco Mediate in 2008, and he still had to go 19 holes to beat him. Rich Beem didn't blink when he beat Woods in the PGA Championship at Hazeltine. Yang remains the only player to win a major when Woods had the lead going into final round.
His former caddie, Steve Williams, once said that what looked like the easiest of Sundays felt like one of the hardest. He was talking about the Buick Open in 2009. Woods went into the final round with a one-shot lead over a group of players that made it look like a Nationwide Tour leaderboard. Only two of the seven guys behind him had won on tour, and none was ranked among the top 100.
The tournament, in the eyes of everyone except the players, was over.
Woods is not at that stage yet, though Saturday could go a long way toward raising the expectations even higher. Woods is known for closing on Sunday, but he traditionally has set himself up for the win on Saturday.
In his 14 major wins, his scoring average in the third round is 68.3 and he has never had a round over par. He has had the lowest score of the third round five times (despite being among the last to tee off in the afternoon), and he has not had a round over par.