By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2010; D01
PEBBLE BEACH, CALIF. -- Tiger Woods's return to golf occurred, of course, two months ago at the Masters, the tournament in which he first attempted to put the sundry and sultry revelations about his personal life aside. He contended there for a time, but returning to the normal rhythms of his game -- exuberant celebrations, birdies in bunches -- proved more difficult.
Saturday, Woods truly returned. He did so at Pebble Beach Golf Links, where 10 years ago this week he recorded one of his most historic victories. He did so in the third round of the U.S. Open, which he entered -- if this is even possible -- as something of an afterthought. He did so after bogeying two of his first three holes, somehow turning around his day -- and the entire tournament -- with an oh-no-here-he-comes 66.
And he did so as Dustin Johnson -- a 25-year-old South Carolinian who hits the ball, as Woods said, "for miles" -- matched him shot for shot.
"I played better," Woods said, and he smiled. Johnson, though, was able to duplicate those pearly whites, because his own 66 thrust him into the lead at 6-under-par 207. He is three strokes ahead of Irishman Graeme McDowell, who played icily until bogeys at 16 and 17, but still managed 71. They are the only men ahead of Woods, whose 15th major championship -- an unlikely notion after his first three holes -- is within reach.
"It does feel good to play this well going into a final round," Woods said, "and I put myself back in the tournament."
That Johnson held up as Woods threatened to overtake the tournament speaks to his enormous talent and his comfort level here. He has won the last two PGA Tour stops at Pebble Beach, and his confidence -- brashly hitting driver where others cowered -- was obvious. Just as Woods's name loomed on the leader board, Johnson birdied the final two holes to stretch out his advantage.
"This is what I live for," Johnson said. "This is what I practice for every day. It's what we play golf for, is to have a chance to win a U.S. Open."
Only a few do. Phil Mickelson, who shot his own 66 Friday, slipped back to 1 over with a 73. Frenchman Gregory Havret and two-time Open champ Ernie Els are the only men between Mickelson and Woods, both at even par.
"Anything can happen on Sunday," Mickelson said. Woods made it happen Saturday. His closing charge began when he ran in an eight-footer at the 16th. There came his first true fist-pump of the season, and he moved on to the diabolical par-3 17th. He was still six shots back of Johnson, who had just come within inches of acing the tiny seventh -- which played Saturday, at 99 yards, the shortest hole in Open history -- and was swinging beautifully.
"When he's on," Woods said, "it's pretty fun to watch."
At 17, Woods pulled a 5-iron and bounced one past the front, right hole. Just as he had some momentum, he was staring at a slippery downhill "joke," he called it.
"Don't throw away the round now," he said he thought to himself, because the putt could easily have run three or four deadly feet by. So instead of throwing away the round, he made it better, curling in an impossibly deft 15-footer for his second consecutive birdie, his fourth of the back nine.
So by the time he stepped to the 18th tee, just before 6 p.m. -- having achieved his goal for the day of "just trying to get back to even par or 1 over for the championship" -- he launched his tee shot toward the two trees that sit in the center of the fairway. He came up just behind the first one, and as he walked toward the ball, he had the kind of devious thought he once had: "I've got a shot at this."
What happened next was the clearest evidence yet that Woods used Saturday to thrust himself back into the center of golf's universe. He had 260 yards to the pin, but because of the tree directly in front of him, he couldn't just fire away. He needed to cut the ball, working it from left to right. Over-cutting it, he figured, would put him in the front, right bunker, and he'd still have a shot at birdie from there. But if he failed to commit to the cut, the ball could very well find the Pacific Ocean.
After he swung -- a mighty cut -- he ran to the center of the fairway and crouched low, squinting toward the green. "Come on!" he yelled, but he suspected it would be good even then. "It came off perfect," he said, and after it settled into the middle of the green, 20 feet left of the pin, he bellowed a "Yeah!" and pumped his fist again.
Such exuberance had been missing from Woods's comeback, and that did not go unnoticed as all of his body language -- each set of slumped shoulders, each under-his-breath curse word -- was analyzed. But Woods's own explanation for the absence of his old trademarks was less nuanced.
"I hadn't played good enough," he said.
Even though he missed the eagle putt, he left the throngs along No. 18 cheering. Since he has been here, Woods has faced at least one heckler -- during Thursday's first round -- but for the most part his personal failings have been discussed only in muffled, private conversations in the gallery. It is his golf, and the splendid memories of that record 15-shot victory in 2000, that tantalize the majority of those who show up to these tournaments. Saturday, Woods made the golf matter again.
"It's a process," Woods said repeatedly. "You have to just build."
That process has now built to the point where Sunday afternoon at a major championship will arrive, and Woods will be there, ominously. Johnson, so long and intriguing, will be there, five shots ahead of him. McDowell, so steady and sturdy, will join them both.
"It's going to be like the rest of the days," Johnson said. But that could hardly be the case. It is the U.S. Open, Tiger Woods is truly back, and that combination likely portends something extraordinary.