Graeme McDowell produced a series of clutch par saves, then played his last nine holes in three under par to grab a share of the lead with Jim Furyk entering the final round of the US Open at The Olympic Club.
After gettting up and down for pars at the fifth, sixth and eighth, he followed what he described as “a bit of a Tarzan five” at the par-four ninth - he was swinging from the trees - by playing the back nine in three under par for a 68 that left him tied at the top with 42-year old Furyk, the 2003 champion, on one-under par.
The pair, who played together for the first two rounds, are two shots clear of Sweden’s Fredrik Jacobson (68) with England’s Lee Westwood (67), two time champion Ernie Els (68), Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts (71) and 36-year old American debutant Blake Adams (70) three shots behind in joint fourth on two over.
Tiger Woods slipped from a share of the lead to 14th, five shots off the pace, after a disappointing 75.
“I struggled on the greens today, quite a bit,” Woods said. “They looked quick, but they putted slow. But they were firmer than they were yesterday. So it was a tough tough feel for me to adjust to and it was amazing how all day I kept getting a half club. Just one of those days where I was right in between clubs on about every single shot. Just never quite had the right number.”
With the top 17 players covered by just five shots, McDowell is taking nothing for granted as he bids for his second US Open title in three years, a third successive US Open win for Northern Ireland and an incredible fourth success for Irish golf from the last nine majors.
“Obviously delighted with my effort today,” said McDowell, who captured the title just 120 miles down the coast at Pebble Beach two years ago. “Myself and Jim played together the first two rounds, so we’ll have the pleasure of one another’s company tomorrow. It’s wide open.
“I look at guys at two and three and four over par in this tournament, who I really think they have a realistic shot to win tomorrow.
“There’s a fine line in this golf course between 67-68 and 75-76. There really is. It’s a tough course. You’ve really got to execute shots well. You’ve got to keep the ball on the correct side of the pin. And you’ve got to play well.”
Ever the grinder, McDowell got up and down from greenside sand at the fifth, holing a 10 footer there for par to remain a shot behind Furyk and in a five-way tie for second with Jacobson, Colsaerts, David Toms and Woods.
He then got up and down from over the back of the sixth, missed an eight foot chance for the outright lead at the seventh before holing a 10 footer for a par at the par-three eighth after bunkering his tee shot.
The ninth proved to be a “wake up call” for the Rathmore clubman. One behind Firyk at the time, he carved his tee shot deep into the trees, failed to cut his escape around the cypress trees and instead finished in deep rough in front of the 10th tee, some 50 yards from the pin.
However, he played a delicate floater just past the pin and bravely two putted to limit the damage to just one stroke.
That seemed to focus his mind and after coming close to holing his second for an eagle at the 10th, where he holed from four feet, he birdied the 13th from eight feet to get within a shot of Furyk, left a 15 footer on the lip at the 15th but then birdied the last from four feet to set the target at one under par.
“Today perhaps some of the pins were a little bit more accessible,” McDowell said. “The back nine on this golf course really gives you an opportunity. It plays quite short.
“You can get short iron in your hand quite a lot and have a chance to attack some pins and make some birdies. I was happy I did that well today.
“My tee shot on nine was kind of a wake-up call for me. I had a big flare in the right trees there and made a bit of a Tarzan 5. And that kind of woke me up a little bit.
“I needed to slow my swing down and get a good groove and rhythm to come in. I had some good shots coming in. And great to play the back nine three under par and get myself right in the mix for to tournament. That was really the goal today.”
Furyk, who was playing with an out of sorts Woods, bogeyed the first and fifth but then birdied the seventh and 11th to take the lead and followed a bogey six at the 17th with a birdie from 14 feet at the 17th to join McDowell in the final group.
McDowell described Furyk as a plodder in his press conference on Friday but made a point of explaining to the American afterwards that he meant no disrespect.
Furyk took it with good humour.
“I don’t know what his definition is. But he actually saw me in the locker room and said, I don’t know what they told you in the pressroom, but I meant everything as a compliment and I didn’t want it to come across the wrong way,” he said.
“I said, no, actually when I was there they had said that you said some nice words. I joked with him that I said some nice stuff about him, but if I needed to retract it I could always go back.
“I like Graeme a lot. I have a lot of respect for him and his game. I enjoyed playing with him Thursday and Friday. I enjoy playing golf with him. I think it’s a great pair for tomorrow.”
Like McDowell, Furyk knows that the tournament is still wide open but he was reluctant to pick a winning score.
“Graeme and I are tied for the lead, but there’s a bunch of people piled up and close to it,” he said. “Obviously I like being up front in the position I’m in.
“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 and find a way to get through those difficult holes with par and limit their bogeys and take advantage of some situations where you can make birdie, those are the guys that are have some success and have an opportunity to win the last few holes.”