SAN FRANCISCO - There must be something about a US Open in Northern California that always gets Graeme McDowell geared up to grind and play his best.
With a final-hole birdie from 6 feet on Saturday, McDowell took the outright lead for the first time in the 112th US Open at the Olympic Club. Jim Furyk, who owned the lead for much of the day, grabbed a share of it minutes later by making his own birdie on No. 17.
Now McDowell and Furyk, who played together the first two rounds, will shake hands once again on the first tee of the final round, perhaps 18 holes away from winning the US Open for a second time.
At 1-under-par 209, McDowell (68) and Furyk (70) are the only players under par on a Lake Course that has played fast, firm, and frustrating for the majority of the field, exactly how the US Golf Association likes it. Fredrik Jacobson (68) is the closest pursuer, two shots back at 1 over.
“Graeme and I are tied for the lead, but there’s a bunch of people close to it,’’ Furyk said. “Obviously, I like being up front in the position I’m in. The guys that go out there and deal with the conditions and the situations the best, those are the guys that will have an opportunity to win the last few holes.’’
While McDowell and Furyk were playing steady and sprinkling in a birdie or two, Tiger Woods got stuck in reverse, stalling his chances at a record-tying fourth US Open and 15th major championship, but first in four years. Woods shot 75, the highest third-round score among the top 26 names on the leaderboard, save for the 76 shot by David Toms.
“It was just a tough day on the greens,’’ Woods said. “Tough day all day. Tomorrow I’m just going to have to shoot a good round, post early, and see what happens.’’
Woods will start the final round five shots back, tied for 14th. All 14 of his majors have been won when Woods shared or held the outright lead after three rounds.
McDowell won the US Open two years ago at Pebble Beach, the only PGA Tour victory in his career. He’s positioned himself to win another with a back-nine 33 that in addition to the short putt at No. 18, included birdies at the 10th and 13th.
“I remember two years ago at Pebble, Saturday being a really difficult day for me, mentally and emotionally. And today was the same way,’’ McDowell said. “I felt a little nervous and anxious and really not sure how the day was going to go.
“Spent a little time with my team just kind of talking about what we were trying to achieve today and got my head screwed back on again, and realized today was trying to position for tomorrow. Get in a relaxed frame of mind and give myself an opportunity to play tomorrow and maybe have a chance to win.’’
He’s not the only one who will have a chance. On a calm, peaceful day in the Bay Area that begged for a run, a number of players other than McDowell obliged, taking advantage of a somewhat softer course (thanks to water being applied) to climb back into the tournament, especially with none of the three co-leaders after two rounds (Furyk, Woods, Toms) shooting under par in the third.
Chief among the chargers were Lee Westwood and Ernie Els, both of whom also shot 33 on the back nine to get within shouting distance at 2 over, three back. Westwood matched the day’s low score with a 67, making a 30-foot birdie putt at the last and reviving hopes that this might, finally, be his time to win a major championship.
“I think I’ve probably been in contention in major championships more than anybody else over the last three or four years,’’ said Westwood, who has seven finishes of second or third in his last 15 majors. “So I’m looking forward to tomorrow and hopefully going to go out and have some fun and see what happens.’’
Els has three majors, including a pair of US Opens (1994, 1997). He was languishing at 7 over for the tournament standing on the sixth tee after bogeys on Nos. 1, 4, and 5. But he was spot on over his final 13 holes, making birdies at the seventh, eighth, and 12th, then chipping in for eagle at the par-5 17th.
“I’m in a much better mood now than I was on the sixth tee,’’ said Els, who missed the cut at last year’s US Open at Congressional, site of his 1997 victory. “To come back and play the last 12 holes in 5 under is quite amazing, and obviously the shot on 17 is what dreams are made of, a shot like that in a US Open. I’m really pleased.’’
Jacobson, last year’s Travelers Championship winner, made three straight birdies, starting at the seventh. When Furyk bogeyed No. 5, it created a five-way tie for the lead at 1 over, with Jacobson, Woods, McDowell, and Nicolas Colsaerts (71).
Anyone expecting Woods to run away with a tournament he seemed poised to control - he hadn’t led at the start of a major round since the final round of the 2009 PGA - would have been surprised at how his first eight holes played out. Playing the toughest holes the Lake Course has to offer, Woods strung together bogeys at the first, third, sixth, and eighth to quickly drop into a tie for sixth.
Furyk, meanwhile, after bogeys at the first and fifth, responded with a birdie at the short seventh (getting up-and-down from a greenside bunker) and another at the 10th.
Anyone expecting Beau Hossler to back up was similarly surprised. The 17-year-old amateur is refusing to go away, showing the kind of resilience - or blissful naiveté - it takes to hang around the lead at a US Open for most of the week. Hossler shot 70, finishing where he started, at 3 over. He made four bogeys, and every time made birdie on the very next hole.
“That really helped me to keep my round going,’’ Hossler said of his bounce-back ability. “I still have the goal to be low amateur, but my goal now is to win the tournament.’’
An amateur winning the US Open? That hasn’t happened since 1933 (Johnny Goodman); an amateur hasn’t finished in the top 10 since Jim Simons tied for fifth in 1971.
Hossler will start the final round tied for eighth and definitely in the mix, one of 11 players within four shots of McDowell and Furyk. The tightly packed field is a distinct change from a year ago, when Rory McIlroy had an eight-shot lead, the trophy engraver able to get a headstart on his work before the final round even began.
No such luck this year. It figures to be an 18-hole shootout. Or, keeping in mind that it’s still the US Open, an 18-hole test of survival, pars coveted, birdies usually elusive. Last man standing wins.
“I look at guys 2, 3, 4 over par in this tournament, I really think they have a realistic shot to win tomorrow,’’ McDowell said. “There’s a fine line on this golf course between 67, 68 and 75, 76. There really is.
“I expect a great atmosphere. It’s wide open.’’