At the end of a third day in which only one player in the top 40 – Sergio Garcia – didn’t shoot a score between 67 and 73, Gary Woodland will take a one-shot advantage into the final round of the 119th US Open at Pebble Beach.
The leader’s 69 took him to 11-under par for 54-holes, a single stroke better than the 2013 US Open champion, Justin Rose.
A three-shot gap exists between the duo, who will form the final pairing on the final day, and the three men in third place – defending champion Brooks Koepka, Chez Reavie and Louis Oosthuizen. Rory McIlroy sits alone in sixth place, five shots off the pace. It is hard to imagine anyone outside that select group hoisting the trophy skyward 18-holes from now.
Not surprisingly for a man who has recorded only two bogeys so far, Woodland was making positive noises about his chances of a first major success. And why not? Having led last year’s USPGA Championship at the halfway stage, the 35-year old Kansan is clearly a man on the rise.
“I know if I play my game and play like the way I've been playing, the guys from behind me are going to have to do something really, really special,” he said. “So I'm going to go out, stay within myself, stick to my game plan and try to extend that lead.
“Besides, it’s nice to be at Pebble Beach. There are a lot of scenic views out there where you can take a step back and put things in perspective real quick. I'm getting more and more comfortable with the situation I’m in, just because I've been in this situation a lot. I've had a lot of close calls this year in tournaments. My game is becoming more complete, and with that comes a lot of confidence and adds up to playing good golf.
“So I don't need to change anything. I just need to enjoy the moment. This is what we play for. This is what I've worked so hard for. What I've learned is I can't control everybody else. But I can control my attitude, and I can control my game. And that's what I'm out here to do.”
"...I know what it takes to win. And my game is in a great spot. I'm at a beautiful golf course. I came here to win, and that's what I’m going out to do tomorrow. – Gary Woodland.”
Rose, too, was sounding confident. Armed with the knowledge that he has been here before and succeeded, the Olympic champion, despite continuing struggles with his usually reliable long game, clearly fancies his chances of winning a second US Open title.
“I'm in a great position going into tomorrow,” he claimed. “One back gives me the freedom to feel like I've got everything to gain, nothing to lose. It doesn't mean I have to approach the day any differently. I'm close enough that I can build my plan, build my round of golf, be disciplined.”
That, of course, has long been the mantra for all of those who have found success in what the United States Golf Association – despite recent lapses – like to claim is golf’s ultimate test. With heavy rough bordering each fairway, the US Open is a test of execution more than an examination of pure shot-making, artistry or imagination.
Still, perhaps the biggest key to success in the final round will be taking advantage of the first seven holes. It isn’t impossible, but the new champion is likely to be a man who is at least there-under par for the day standing on the 8th tee.
“Everyone will require a strong seven holes to open up tomorrow,” said Graeme McDowell, champion here in 2010. “That gives you something to hang on to coming in. We all know that the first seven is where you make your score. It’s a case of hanging on from eight to 14. Then on 15 through 18 you can do some things.”
Disappointingly, none of the above applied to the four Australians battling for the minor places. Adam Scott remains best placed in a tie for 14th place after an even-par 71. Jason Day and Marc Leishman are both T-27 after each shot 70. And an out of sorts Cam Smith’s battling birdie on the final hole only made the difference between 78 and 77.
Of the four, Scott was most upset, having endured a run of bad breaks on the back-nine.
“It's just a cruel game sometimes,” he said. “Today I really had my swing and the ball under control. But now I'm too far back. It wasn't really my day. I hit some good putts. A lot rolled by the edge. A couple lipped out. It was all a bit frustrating.
“But the good news is I was swinging it really good. And if I can repeat that tomorrow and get a bit of momentum going, I feel like there's a good score out there for me, something mid to low 60s.”
The final word, however, must go to the leader, a man with perspective, if not yet a major to his name.
“I’ve worked for this my whole life,” he said. “I've trained since I started walking. I’ve played sports, I've competed. I've learned how to win, even if I haven't done it as much as I'd like. But I know what it takes to win. And my game is in a great spot. I'm at a beautiful golf course. I came here to win, and that's what I’m going out to do tomorrow.”