Associated Press
Sunday, June 18

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Not even the toughest test in golf could stop Tiger Woods from turning in the most dominant performance in U.S. Open history.

No one in the field stands much of a chance, either.

 Ernie Els
Ernie Els had the only round under par on Saturday, a 3-under 68.
With incredible shots, unlikely birdies and a round that just might rank as one of his greatest ever, Woods had an even-par 71 on Saturday to build a 10-stroke lead after three rounds, the largest 54-hole margin in U.S. Open history.

"The tough conditions, I thought, played into my hands," Woods said about the whipping winds, thick rough and rock-hard greens. "I played solid golf."

The last time Woods had such a commanding lead was in the 1997 Masters, when he was nine strokes ahead after the third round and won by a record 12 strokes.

"Unless something dramatic happens, I think he is the winner already," Jose Maria Olazabal said.

Something already did.

On a Pebble Beach course exposed by strong winds off the Pacific that produced more than a dozen rounds in the 80s, Woods was the epitome of a U.S. Open champion, missing only two fairways and never losing control.

He was at 8-under 205, 10 strokes clear of two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, whose 3-under 68 was the only round under par all day.

"With these conditions, it shows you the quality of player he is," said Miguel Angel Jimenez, who began the third round six strokes back and was at 216, along with Padraig Harrington.

"I'm trying to win my own tournament," the Spaniard said. "He's playing a different tournament. There's no way you're going to take that tournament."

The 10-stroke lead shattered the mark set in 1921 by James Barnes, who led by seven strokes and went on to win by nine. Less than 12 hours earlier, Woods' six-stroke lead after 36 holes broke the record of five set by Willie Anderson in the 1903 U.S. Open.

No one has ever come back from more than seven strokes to win a U.S. Open, and never before has a player of Woods' caliber been the one protecting a lead. He is 17-2 worldwide when he has at least a share of the lead after three rounds.

Els' brilliant effort moved him from a tie for 30th to second place. That put him in the final pairing Sunday with Woods, but hardly a showdown.

Woods had a triple bogey on the third hole, twice chopping out of the gnarly collar around a bunker, and finally showed signs of a struggle. Still, he maintained a sizable lead because everyone else was having the same problems.

Jimenez and Thomas Bjorn, who started the third round six strokes off the pace, quickly dropped out of sight.

Harrington had a 72 and was at 216. Olazabal and Phil Mickelson, the runner-up last year at Pinehurst No. 2, were at 217 -- not a bad 54-hole score at any U.S. Open.

Except this one.

Throughout the toughest stretch of holes at Pebble Beach, along the rugged California coastline, Woods was at his best.

With one foot in the bunker and his ball in thick grass around the lip of a bunker, Woods blasted it out to 10 feet on the par-5 sixth for a birdie. He then holed another 10-footer on No. 7 to return to even par for the day.

After a bogey on No. 8 from the left rough -- no crime compared with what happened to Colin Montgomerie and Sergio Garcia -- Woods holed a 15-footer for birdie on No. 9, which was playing as the toughest hole on the course.

The best hope for the other golfers was for Woods to repeat history, not make it.

The last time the U.S. Open was played at Pebble Beach, Gil Morgan reached 12-under after seven holes of the third round. Then, the wind kicked up and the white caps in the blue Pacific raged, and Morgan came undone.

He played his next seven holes in 7-over, lost his seven-stroke lead and eventually the tournament.

"Now, Gil Morgan and Tiger Woods are not the same players," Justin Leonard said. "But it has happened before."

Not this time.

Despite a tee shot into the Pacific that caused Woods to curse up a storm, he finished his second round Saturday morning with a 69 and for a six-stroke lead. His 134 tied the U.S. Open record first set by Jack Nicklaus in 1980.

In the six hours before Woods teed off in the third round, the only question was how much lower he could go, how much more distance he could put between himself and the rest of the field.

"Typically in the U.S. Open, everybody always comes back," Mickelson said. "You have a little different sense of that with Tiger, but there's nothing we can do about it."

The field was trimmed to 63 players after the second round was completed, which is abnormally low because the cut is the top 60 players plus anyone within 10 strokes of the lead. Only 17 players were within 10 strokes of Woods.

"The only thing that could stop Tiger from winning is Tiger," said Jesper Parnevik, who was paired with him for the first two rounds.

Pebble Beach slammed just about everyone else.

Montgomerie required two swings out of the rough on the eighth green just to move the ball the length of his wedge. He took quadruple-bogey 8 and finished at 79, his worst score in a U.S. Open. Garcia also took an 8 and had an 81.

Jim Furyk birdied the first hole and nothing else, signing for an 84. Hal Sutton, who was at 6-under at one point in the first round, had an 83.

Nick Faldo finished off his 76 to finish at 219, and looked back at the scoreboard to see whom might be left to challenge Woods.

"I was looking for Jimenez, and I couldn't find him," Faldo said.

The three-time Masters and British Open champion knows something about comebacks. He was six back of Greg Norman in the 1996 Masters and won by five.

Could it happen again?

"I wouldn't think so," Faldo said. "He's just playing so well, and he keeps his sensibilities about him. Even if he gives an odd shot back here and there, it won't be a disaster."

Those closest to the lead -- if 10 strokes can be considered close -- have to catch a player who appeared to handle the tough conditions as easily as the tame ones.


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ALSOSEE:
Checking in from Pebble Beach -- Saturday

Frozen moment: Woods slips

Hole of the Day -- No. 8

Third-round scores

Plenty of big names headed home

AUDIO/VIDEO:
Tiger Woods finishes round 2 on Saturday with a tee shot into the rocks on 18 (Courtesy NBC).
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Real: 56.6 | ISDN | T1


Ernie Els holes his second shot on 4 (Courtesy NBC).
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Real: 56.6 | ISDN | T1


Colin Montgomery has trouble on the 8th (Courtesy NBC).
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Tiger Woods hits the birdie putt on 2 (Courtesy NBC).
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Real: 56.6 | ISDN | T1


Tiger Woods puts the ball inches from the cup on the final hole of round 3 (Courtesy NBC).
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Real: 56.6 | ISDN | T1


Todd Fisher punctuates his second round Saturday with a hole-in-one on 7 (Courtesy NBC).
avi: 1104 k
Real: 56.6 | ISDN | T1


Phil Mickelson makes the eagle on the 15th hole (Courtesy NBC).
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Real: 56.6 | ISDN | T1


Tiger Woods says the key to his play this week is sinking key putts.
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Real: 14.4 | 28.8 | 56.6


Ernie Els believes he is still in the hunt for the U.S. Open championship.
wav: 90 k
Real: 14.4 | 28.8 | 56.6


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