Their aplomb couldn’t catch up because the Kansan, Gary Woodland, decorated Pebble Beach Golf Links with unfathomable saves sprinkled amid his athletic steadiness. With his 35-year-old nerves long since revealed as sturdy when he made 14 of 15 free throws in a victorious 2002 high school boys’ basketball state championship game, he finished the third round of his 31st major at 11 under par with a one-shot lead while staving off some hard-charging horses.
Beyond 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose at 10 under in second place, a marvel lurked and hovered and menaced at 7 under, as did a chance at some real golf history. If the Ali of the game at the moment, Brooks Koepka, manages to win, he would become the first man to win three straight U.S. Opens since the Scottish-American Willie Anderson in 1905, at Myopia Hunt Club near Boston — still a swell place for a fox hunt.
“Obviously, whatever I’m doing is working,” Koepka said, and it has worked to a degree almost inconceivable, making him the first man to hold down back-to-back U.S. Open and PGA Championship titles simultaneously. He put a masterful 68 atop his 69s of the first two days and continued to resemble some sort of golfing Zeus. When he made par on par-5 No. 18 even after getting stuck momentarily behind the famed and haughty fairway cypress tree, he completed 28 consecutive holes without a bogey. He even saw considerable putts roll nicely and then turn around and taunt him from the front lip on No. 1 and the back lip on No. 17, the kind of spite at which golf balls often excel.
Crazy addendum: Amid his three major titles in the past five outings, and four in the past nine, he also finished second at the Masters.
Situated in a three-way tie for third at 7 under with 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen and first-time major contender Chez Reavie, Koepka figured to benefit Sunday from “just having been in the position I’m in,” he said. “Feels like almost every major right now. Second at Augusta. I feel like I’ve put myself in good chances where I’m very comfortable around that. I don’t need to go out and chase. I don’t need to do much. Just kind of let it come to you.”
Behind Woodland, Rose, Koepka, Reavie and Oosthuizen sat a star, Rory McIlroy, who often veered back and forth on his way to 6 under. For the second straight day, he had a shot smack down on the 14th green and then roll off, but this time he saved par rather than double-bogeying. To those who have branded the course too easy, McIlroy said, “Come play it yourself.”
His unevenness at times could make it seem surprising he ranks 12th in the field in greens in regulation, an area mastered by first-place Koepka and fourth-place Woodland. Rose has aced the art of scrambling, particularly adept in sand and one-putting.
In the moment of the tournament thus far, around 5:20 p.m. Pacific, three golfers on two holes made the stands thunder, and the 119th U.S. Open had budded into something. Woodland and Rose operated on the par-3 12th, Koepka on the par-4 15th. Woodland stood at 11 under, Rose at 9 under and Koepka at 7 under.
Woodland’s tee shot on No. 12 went for a visit into horrid vegetation next to the green, somehow perching itself on the slope in the weeds adjacent the bunker. When he pitched out of there across the green in the exurbs of the hole to the fringe, he looked intractably bogey-bound.
Rose’s tee shot behaved and rested nine feet from the cup.
Koepka’s second shot on No. 14, from the pristine mid-fairway 137 yards from the pin, strayed over to the left of the green and dunked itself into botanical thickness. From there, he knocked one far enough into the air that it barely waved at the flag as it went overhead and stopped only at the fringe behind. He, too, looked bogey-bound.
Facing bogey or double bogey, Woodland chipped the thing from 33 feet, saw it break slightly and flawlessly left, and pumped his fist as it plunked in for one towering par. Rose refrained from getting distracted, following that with a nine-foot birdie putt that went squarely in.
Next came Koepka, out there on that fringe at No. 14, looking as desperate as a calm man can look until his 33-foot putt reached the bottom of the cup with such command that it looked somehow normal.
Barely had anyone comprehended all of that when Woodland played a messy No. 14, visiting various portions of the hole until rolling in a mere 42-footer to save par and par his way home from there. While he did that, Oosthuizen inched up the leader board with birdies on Nos. 15, 16 and 17, from 20 feet, 11 feet and 13 feet.
“Yeah, great finish,” he said.
While Koepka kept his level in majors implausible, the 2019 Masters champion mostly sailed sideways. Having played his first two rounds with 29 pars among 36 holes, Tiger Woods supplied a more dramatic round Saturday from his position at even par, nine shots behind Woodland at the outset. He made three bogeys and two birdies on the front nine, then two bogeys and three birdies on the back nine for a vivid scorecard that left him . . . even.
He then told the tale of a 43-year-old with an unusual amount of experience in back surgery, saying, “When it’s cold like this, everything is achy.” Near Carmel Bay with the temperatures in the mid-50s, Woods added: “It’s just part of the deal. . . . The forces have to go somewhere. And if they’re not in the lower back, they’re in the neck. And if not, they go to the mid-back. And if not, they go to the knee. You name it.”
Such did the winner of 81 PGA Tour events and 15 majors dwell well behind Woodland, long known as a good ball-smasher but better of late at the short stuff. He has won thrice on tour — in 2011, 2013 and 2018 — and has a lofty world ranking of 25th, but his name had not grown familiar beyond the golf intellectuals because his first 27 majors included eight cuts and no finish higher than a tie for 12th. Yet he seems to have summoned something in the past three majors, starting when his tie for sixth in August at the PGA Championship gave him experience that will be especially edifying as he tries to hold on here.
“I don’t need to change anything,” he said, emphasizing he aims to continue “everything that I’ve been doing. I mean, I’ve worked for this my whole life.”