Tiger holds off a surprise challenge from top rivals

Sunday, June 16, 2002

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- Two birdie putts by two of his biggest rivals rocked the U.S. Open with deafening cheers that Tiger Woods couldn't ignore.

First came Phil Mickelson with a slick 20-footer on the 17th.

Then it was Sergio Garcia, pouring one in on the 16th and pointing up the hill to Mickelson, as if they were tag-team partners trying to stop Woods from another runaway.

Woods got the message, and answered right back.

"I saw the guys making a run at me, and I just tried to keep hanging in there," he said.

He did better than that.

With his first birdie of the day on No. 15, the toughest hole at Bethpage Black, Woods regained control at the U.S. Open and set up a final round suddenly dripping with drama.

Woods finished with an even-par 70 for a four-stroke lead over Garcia, the sassy Spaniard who complained Friday that Woods was getting all the breaks, then left him a note Saturday morning to explain that "I didn't mean anything bad about him."

They will be paired together in the final group Sunday, a rivalry that has been brewing for three years and just got even more intense.

"I'm excited about playing with him, and I'm sure he feels the same way," Woods said.

Don't forget Mickelson, the man without a major who lived up to his thrill-a-minute style with seven birdies that kept him in the picture.

Despite struggling with his swing on the easiest day for scoring at Bethpage Black, Woods was poised to become the first player since Jack Nicklaus in 1972 to claim the first two legs of the Grand Slam.

Woods was at 5-under 205, and his four-stroke lead is daunting. He is 23-2 when he has at least a share of the lead going into the final round, and he's never lost a 54-hole lead in a major championship.

The last one came at the Masters, when Woods built an early lead in the final round and watched everyone else get out of the way.

That might not be the case here.

Garcia ignored heckles about his waggles and girlfriend Martina Hingis and turned in his best score at a U.S. Open, a 3-under 67 that included a near ace on No. 14.

"I was trying to put myself in position, and it was nice to see Phil doing it in front, knowing it could be done," Garcia said after a 3-under 67, his best round in a U.S. Open. "It was quite a thrill to get back in the tournament. We'll see if we can give him another nice run tomorrow and make it exciting."

Mickelson, who claims to be one of the few players who can stand up to Woods, had a 67 despite three bogeys on his first five holes.

But what makes the final round so compelling is Garcia.

They first battled at the 1999 PGA Championship, when Woods barely held him off at Medinah. Then, Garcia beat him in the "Battle at Bighorn" two summers ago, and his exuberant celebration at a silly made-for-TV event clearly annoyed Woods.

Throw in a New York gallery that has become more boisterous each day, and it could be quite a finish.

"It's going to be tough for both of us," Woods said.

Thickening the plot are comments from Garcia on Friday, when he complained that Woods was getting all the breaks and received preferential treatment.

Garcia thought there was too much water on the greens and in the fairway for the second round to continue.

"If Tiger Woods would have been out there, it would have been called," he said. "It's tough to beat a guy when ... he gets breaks and makes putts."

Garcia said he left a note in Woods' locker Saturday morning to explain what he meant.

Woods said he did not have a chance to read the note.

"It was awfully nice of him to do that," Woods said. "I'm excited about playing with him, and I'm sure he feels the same way."

They shook hands as they passed each other in the interview room, although the final round will be no time to build a relationship.

"I don't think he's a guy who likes to talk too much on a Sunday in a major, anyway," Garcia said. "That's why we have a caddie."

Mickelson could have been in the final group, but he hit a 2-iron into shin-high grass on the 18th hole and made bogey. Still, he doesn't mind his position.

"I'd like to put a little pressure on Tiger and Sergio playing behind me," Mickelson said. "If I make a few birdies, maybe they'll feel a little pressure to do the same."

Woods has only lost a 54-hole lead twice -- one of those was to Mickelson in the 2000 Tour Championship, when Lefty played in the group ahead of Woods.

But that was only a one-shot deficit. This one is four strokes, and this is the U.S. Open, the toughest test in golf.

"I get more intimidated by the four shots than by Tiger," Garcia said.

Others still had fleeting hope.

Jeff Maggert had a bogey-free 68 and joined Mickelson at even-par 210, five strokes behind. Robert Allenby, the rail-thin Aussie, capped his wild afternoon with a birdie on the 18th for a 67 and was another stroke back, along with Billy Mayfair (68) and Padraig Harrington of Ireland, who played with Woods and had a 73.

But it was Garcia and Mickelson who got Woods' attention.

Woods was on the 15th tee, 2 over for the day and, after blowing a birdie chance two holes earlier, he heard two roars that shook Bethpage.

It was also the first time he had seen them all day -- Mickelson just 250 yards up the hill on the 17th, Garcia on the adjacent 16th green about 30 yards away.

Their birdies closed the gap to two strokes.

"Even though the guys were making a run and I was still over par, I had to remind myself I still had the lead," Woods said. "And if I parred in, they had to come get me, and that's how I played."

He laced a 3-wood into the fairway on the toughest hole at Bethpage Black, and hit his approach into 12 feet. When the birdie putt fell, Woods threw his putter at his bag.

"That was my way of saying to myself I finally had a birdie," Woods said.

Only he wasn't through.

He stuffed a 6-iron on the 207-yard 17th to 6 feet below the cup for another birdie and pumped his fist harder than he has all week, sensing order had been restored.

It wasn't a perfect day, but it was good enough.

As tough as the Black Course was Friday -- the highest scoring in 10 years -- it was soft, still and forgiving, just the right mood for players to climb up the leaderboard.

Nick Faldo, who only got into the U.S. Open two weeks ago on a special exemption, showed just how much he loves New York by making six birdies in a round of 66, the best score all week. That put him in a tie for eighth.

The course was ripe for a runaway, only Woods wasn't on his game.

He didn't hit a fairway until the sixth hole. He didn't have a decent birdie putt until the seventh -- and missed. He barked out instructions to his ball through pursed lips.

Harrington fared even worse.

He tried to stay close, but a double bogey on No. 5 started his swift slide. Harrington hit into the left rough, hacked out to the fairway and then flew the green into a bunker.

That left Woods with a fresh set of challengers, but still a four-shot lead as he tries to win his eighth major championship.

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