SAN FRANCISCO – Graeme McDowell and Jim Furyk, a pair of U.S. Open champions, managed to beat par at The Olympic Club.
Tiger Woods simply got battered.
In the 33 times he has started a round atop the leaderboard at a major, Woods never had a tougher struggle with par than Saturday at the U.S. Open — a 5-over 75 that made his uphill climb to the majestic clubhouse overlooking San Francisco feel a lot longer.
Thanks to late birdies by McDowell and Furyk, it won't get any easier Sunday.
McDowell showed the kind of fight that won him a U.S. Open two years ago down the coast at Pebble Beach. He scratched out pars and finished with a 4-foot birdie putt that gave him a 2-under 68 and a share of the lead going into the final round at The Olympic Club.
"Probably for the first time this week, I actually enjoyed the round of golf," McDowell said.
Furyk, also bidding for another trophy from golf's toughest test, outclassed Woods in the final pairing with key bunker saves and an 8-foot birdie putt on the 17th for a 70, making him the only player who has yet to have a round over par.
They were at 1-under 139, the only survivors against par.
"Obviously, I like being up front in the position I'm in," Furyk said. "The golf course will take its effect on a bunch of people. And the guys that go out there and deal with the conditions and the situations the best ... those are the guys that are have some success and have an opportunity to win the last few holes."
Woods sure didn't look like one of those guys in the third round. Wearing a key lime shirt, he turned in a lemon.
He fell out of the lead with two bogeys in the first three holes, couldn't make a birdie on the stretch of holes that Olympic allows players to make up ground, and ended with a sloppy bogey on the 18th for a 75. Only eight players had a higher score.
It matched Woods' worst score when he at least a share of the lead after any round of a major, a 3-over 75 in the final round of the 2009 PGA Championship when he lost to Y.E. Yang.
"I'm just going to have to shoot a good round tomorrow, and post early and see what happens," Woods said.
All was not lost for Woods, not to mention another dozen or so players. In a U.S. Open that has lived up to its reputation, it was difficult for anyone to get too far ahead.
McDowell and Furyk were two shots ahead of Fredrik Jacobson, who had a 68. Another shot behind was a group that included Lee Westwood, whose Saturday-best 67 gave him another shot at his first major; and Ernie Els, who holed a long pitch for eagle on the 17th that carried him to a 68. The Big Easy is a two-time U.S. Open champion, with that first title coming 18 years ago.
"Experience helps around here," Els said. "For some reason, I'm patient again this week and that's been kind of my virtue in major championship golf, the ability to be patient and wait it out. And I think you're going to have to do that tomorrow."
Thirteen players were separated by four shots going into Sunday, a list that includes 17-year-old Beau Hossler, who followed bogeys with birdies for a 70.
Woods, who has never won a major from behind, was five shots back. His round ended with a shot from the middle of the 18th fairway that hung up in the right collar of rough, and a stubbed chip that took a hard turn to the left some 10 feet away.
When he two-putted for his sixth bogey, his day got a little worse. Climbing the hill toward the fabled clubhouse at Olympic, a photographer brushed past him and Woods banged his hand into the camera. He shook it several times, but later said he was fine.
The real hurt came from Olympic.
"It was just a tough day on the greens, and most of the day, I just kept getting that half-number, right in between clubs all day," said Woods, who was either well long or short on his approach shots.
Furyk, the only player who has not had a round over par in this championship, and McDowell played together in the opening two rounds. Both are similar players who appear to be a good fit for Olympic — control off the tee and a strong fight to avoid bogeys. McDowell referred to Furyk as a "plodder," which at the U.S. Open is a high compliment.
"It doesn't have to look or be fancy. It has to work," Furyk said. "And I think we have styles of games where we put the ball into play, we put the ball on the green and take our chance at the putt and then move on."
But this was not shaping up as a two-man race for McDowell and Furyk.
"Looking at the leaderboard, you've got to look down as far as the guys at 3 or 4 (over) as having a realistic chance of winning this tournament," McDowell said.
That includes some regular characters, such as Westwood and Els and even two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen, who was five shots behind. And it features newcomers to this stage like Nicolas Colsaerts, the big hitter from Belgium — and even a high school kid.
For every bogey Hossler made, he answered with a birdie on the next hole.
His only big blunder came on the 11th, when he was too aggressive with a downhill putt and missed his par putt from 6 feet. Two holes later, he hit a heavy chip from the hazard that rolled back down a slope for another bogey. The kid just wouldn't go away, though, and suddenly he is dreaming big.
Hossler wanted to make the cut. Then, he wanted to be the low amateur. Now?
"My goal now is to win the tournament," he said.
In the 14 majors he has won, Woods was never worse than par in the pivotal third round and had a scoring average of 68.3. There was no way that was going to hold up on a course like Olympic, though Woods was expecting better than what he delivered on this Saturday.
He missed the first fairway, came up short of the third green and wound up with three bogeys through six holes.
"I don't think he looked that far off," Furyk said. "It's just stuff happens at U.S. Opens sometimes.
Woods wasn't alone in making mistakes. David Toms, tied for the second-round lead with Furyk and Woods at 1 under, played that rugged six-hole stretch in 5 over and fell six shots behind with a 76.
Even with the USGA watering the course Friday night and Saturday morning, Olympic was as relentless as ever.
But it wasn't impossible.
Westwood showed that, as did Els, who called it as easy as the course played all week.
Kevin Chappell, who tied for third last year on a soft Congressional course that yielded a record score, had a 68 and takes an unthinkable streak of 24 holes without a bogey into the final round. He was at 3-over 213, along with Webb Simpson, who also had a 68.
Asked if the experience at Congressional would help, Chappell gave an apt description of what awaits Sunday.
"Last year we were trying to make birdies in the U.S. Open," he said. "And here, you're just trying to survive."
Westwood came in right behind Chappell, and while he failed to take advantage on the par 5s, he finished in style with a 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th for a 67. Westwood began this week as the third wheel in a powerful threesome of the top players in the world ranking. Luke Donald, the world No. 1, and defending champion Rory McIlroy have gone home. Westwood now has another chance to pick up his first major.
He twice has missed a playoff by one shot, in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines and the 2009 British Open at Turnberry. He twice as been runner-up in the majors.
A win on Sunday would end that heartache, and return him to No. 1 in the world.
"I think I've probably been in contention in major championships more than anybody else over the last three or four years," Westwood said. "So I'm looking forward to tomorrow and hopefully go out and have some fun and see what happens."