PINEHURST, N.C. The ball took one last turn and dropped
into the cup for birdie, making Retief Goosen more than just the
sole survivor of par at Pinehurst No. 2.
Goosen seized control of the U.S. Open on Saturday with three
birdies on the final five holes, the last one a 25-footer from just
off the 18th green that gave him a 1-under 69 -- one of only two
rounds under par -- and a three-shot lead over journeymen Olin
Browne and Jason Gore.
The 35-year-old South African is now just 18 holes away from his
third U.S. Open title in five years, a chance to join Curtis
Strange as the only back-to-back winners in the last 50 years.
He has history on his side, and no one with any major
championship credentials within four shots of him. The last six
U.S. Open champions have started the final round with the lead,
dating to Payne Stewart at Pinehurst in 1999.
Goosen certainly has the demeanor -- birdies and bogeys are met
with the same, placid stare -- but no one can question he has the
game for the toughest test in golf.
"That's what you need on a course like this -- no heartbeat and
a great short game,'' Arron Oberholser said.
Goosen finished at 3-under 207 and will play in the final group
Sunday with Gore, who is No. 818 in the world ranking and showed
plenty of grit with three nifty par saves and a 15-foot birdie on
the final hole for a 72.
Browne, No. 300 in the world who got into the U.S. Open by
shooting 59 in a qualifier, also hung tough with birdies on three
of the par 3s for a 72 to finish the third round tied with Gore at
Michael Campbell (71) and Mark Hensby (72) were another stroke
Only Goosen and U.S. Senior Open champion Peter Jacobsen managed
to break par in dry, fiery conditions played under a blazing sun,
which made the domed greens off limits to all but the most
exquisite shots -- and Jacobsen needed a hole in one on No. 9 to do
Goosen had his share of troubles, making a mess of the 13th hole
with a wedge that went over the green and a chip that went back
down the fairway. But he recovered with spectacular shots, starting
with a 6-iron out of a fairway bunker, fading slightly toward the
middle of the green to 30 feet for birdie.
The big names -- and that includes some of the Big Five with
which Goosen is only loosely associated -- face the toughest task of
all. They need to make birdies on a course that doesn't allow many,
or hope that Goosen comes tumbling back to par and beyond.
David Toms, who gave up five shots on his final two holes
Friday, hit an approach shot that bumped into a bird on the 18th
green, then made his 10-foot birdie for a 70 that put him at 2-over
Tiger Woods couldn't hit the fairway with a 2-iron on two of the
first three holes and made bogeys, but played even par the rest of
the way for a 72 that left him in a group at 3-over 213. Woods has
never won when trailing by more than five shots going into the last
round on the PGA Tour.
Vijay Singh failed to make birdie in his round of 74, leaving
him at 214 and seven shots behind.
The only thing keeping the Goose from joining just five other
players with at least three U.S. Open titles is Pinehurst No. 2, a
course that can dole out punishment at any time.
"It is nice having a lead going into the last round,'' Goosen
said. "If it was 12 shots, I'd probably be a little more
comfortable, but it's going to be a hard day out there tomorrow.
Anything can happen on this course. You can lose three shots very
quickly around here.''
Goosen lost them on two holes.
His tee shot on the 12th went right into a sandy area, landing
just beyond a patch of wire grass. He missed the green to the left
and took bogey. Then came the 378-yard 13th, the toughest hole in
the third round.
From the left rough, his ball rolled over the crown of the green
and left him a delicate chip. He misjudged the speed ever so
slightly and watched the ball tumble off the front of the green and
back down to the fairway. Goosen pitched up to about 10 feet and
rimmed the cup for a double bogey.
Suddenly, no one was under par in the U.S. Open. And with a mean
stretch of holes in front of him and the other leaders, it figured
to only get worse. Goosen's next tee shot again sailed to the right
and into a bunker.
One swing turned everything around.
From a downhill, sidehill lie in the bunker, he shaped a 6-iron
from left-to-right to the middle of the green, an ideal spot even
for someone in the middle of the fairway. That was followed by
another perfect 6-iron on the par-3 15th to the middle of the green
for birdie from 15 feet.
Goosen had good looks at birdie on the next two holes, lipping
out from 10 feet on the 17th, before he sent a powerful message
with the 25-footer that trickled into the 18th hole on its last
turn: This is one cool customer.
"That guy might be the most underrated of all of them,'' Browne
said, noting how Goosen often gets left out of conversations
involving Woods, Singh, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson. "That guy
just goes about his business.''
Gore was one of the few guys who left Pinehurst with a smile,
and for good reason.
Beefy and lovable, he was greeted by cheers at every turn by a
gallery charmed by his longshot bid in a third round when everyone
expected him to collapse under the pressure.
He almost did, chopping up the 14th hole so badly that he had to
two-putt from 20 feet for double bogey. He missed the 15th green to
the left and saved par with an 8-footer, came up short on the 16th
and saved par from 6 feet, then got up-and-down for par from behind
the 17th green.
When his birdie putt fell on the final hole, he crouched and
pointed to the hole, then raised his putter.
"Crazy stuff happens,'' he said. "I thought everybody was
lying until today came around.''
Can he actually beat the Goose?
"I'm in the final pairing,'' he said. "I've come this far. If
they invite me out on the 18th green and they hand me a large piece
of silver, that will be pretty special.''
Even so, the toughest challenger remains the course.
Goosen isn't ready to celebrate another U.S. Open just yet,
although it would be hard to tell if he were. Unflappable as ever,
the Goose now looks unstoppable.