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Tiger Woods finds his groove at U.S. Open to get in contention

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — It began with a birdie putt, sources told TMZ.

There were drives, approach shots and an unconfirmed report of a wedge, according to Access Hollywood.

Now, this morning, the National Enquirer is reporting that Tiger Woods is back.

Just when we were getting used to the idea of Tiger as a candidate for celebrity rehab, his legend grew at the U.S. Open on Saturday. Dustin Johnson still has a sizable lead and Graeme McDowell is still in the way, but this is officially Tiger's tournament.

Not because he's going to win it. The odds of that are still pretty slim.

It's just that the third round of the 2010 U.S. Open will forever be remembered as the moment Tiger reclaimed his career. He will still be the object of punch lines, he will still have stains on his legacy, but golf fans will no longer doubt his ability to rise above scandal.

Because what happened on the back nine at Pebble Beach Golf Links on Saturday was remarkable theater, even by Tiger standards.

For three days and dozens of holes, the man had been completely normal. On second thought, he was worse than normal. For most of the Open, Tiger was actually inconsequential. And that might be the most unkind thing you can say about him.

Through 36 holes, he was 4 over and tied for 25th place. Through another nine holes Saturday, he was still 4 over, and even NBC seemed to be losing interest in him.

Then came a remarkable back nine that felt like Augusta in 1997. Or Pebble Beach in 2000. Or Torrey Pines in 2008. Woods began hitting everything right. And when he didn't hit it right, he made up for it with ridiculous recoveries.

It felt just like his Saturday charge at the U.S. Open in 2008.

Except, you know, with porn stars.

For the first time in a long while, we saw the Woods of our memories. There was the winding birdie putt from the fringe on No. 17. There was the approach shot from behind a tree on No. 18. There were fist pumps, and there were shouts.

"It felt good for me to turn it around," Woods said.

In his final eight holes of the third round, Woods dropped in five birdies. He went from the middle of the field to third and went from nine strokes off the lead to five strokes behind Johnson.

"I said (Friday) it was a process. You have to just build," Woods said. "All the Opens that I've won, I've had one stretch of nine holes. It doesn't have to be on a back nine or a front nine, just a nine-hole stretch where you put it together.

"That's what most Open champions have done, and I did it (Saturday). I got myself back in the championship with those nine holes."

Should he complete the comeback today, it will mean an entire new chapter in the lore of Tiger. For all his accomplishments, Woods has never been a come-from-behind kind of guy. He has won 14 majors but has never won when trailing going into the final round.

On top of that, Woods is in the middle of the biggest crisis of his career. It has been nine months since he won a tournament and 24 months since he won a major.

On the other hand, it has been only a few days since a porn star from Sarasota claimed he was the father of her 9-year-old son. And only a few hours since the executive director of the USGA gave him a verbal backhand.

If you recall, after the first round when Woods had a field-high 34 putts, he blasted the USGA's handling of the greens. Executive director David Fay responded Saturday, not-so-subtly suggesting to the Associated Press that Woods showed less accountability than Phil Mickelson after a poor round.

"I think two players used the word awful on Thursday," Fay said. "Phil said he putted awful. Tiger said the greens were awful."

Woods did not back down after his round Saturday.

"A lot of players felt the same," he said. "They just didn't say it."

This is the world Tiger lives in now. He might still be the No. 1 player in the world, but he no longer gets the same level of deference. Not from the crowds, which include the occasional heckle. Not at news conferences, which sometimes veer into talk of scandals and marriage counseling.

Woods has seemingly coped by ignoring the distractions, which is not all that different from the way he used to behave. Any question about his emotions is turned into a golf issue. Any inquiry about his time away is deflected. Any personal questions are greeted with a curt response that it is none of our business.

If anyone expected a more humble Tiger after his personal turmoil, they are probably disappointed. If anyone expected a more introspective man after his time away from the game, there has been little evidence of that.

Through all the injuries, all the scandals, all the tabloid headlines, Woods does not really seem all that different.

And when it comes to golf, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Tiger Woods finds his groove at U.S. Open to get in contention 06/20/10 [Last modified: Sunday, June 20, 2010 1:43am]
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