SAN FRANCISCO – There was the bogey at the opening hole, even after driving it into the heart of the fairway. Bad.
The bogey at No. 5? OK, that was bad, too. And so was the one at the fourth, courtesy of a horrendous snap hook. But when he broke from his game plan to hit driver at the par-4 sixth and slammed it into the only fairway bunker at The Olympic Club, well, that wasn’t a marine layer you saw.
It was the steam coming out of Ernie Els’ ears.
He needed to compose himself, yes, but what he also needed was something to turn things around.
“When I got to the bunker and saw the ball, I thought, ‘He might just be able to squeeze a 7-iron out of there,’ “ Ricci Roberts said.
Els’ longtime caddie has seen his man ride a swing of emotions for years, and the third round of the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club was the latest example. To a very positive side, too, because after launching that 7-iron up and out of a brutal bunker, salvaging par and making birdie at the seventh and eighth holes, it felt like old times in the U.S. Open to Els.
Which is why Roberts didn’t hesitate to remind Els that they’ve won this thing twice before – 1994 at Oakmont and 1997 at Congressional.
“That turned things around on those three holes,” Els said of the escape at six and the birdies at seven and eight.
He was bogey-free the remainder of the way, and when he tossed in a birdie at the par-4 12th and pitched in for eagle with a magical wedge shot at the par-5 17th, Els had one of 13 sub-par rounds, a 2-under 68 and shock of shocks, he was in the thick of things.
“I’m in a much better mood now than I was on the sixth tee,” he said with a big smile after his stellar effort allowed him to hurdle 15 players on the leaderboard. At 2-over 212, Els is tied for fourth, but whereas he began Saturday five off the lead, he’ll begin Saturday within three.
Clearly pleased to have played well, Els was in great company. The best day of weather brought out the best day of scoring and at seemingly every turn of the head, someone new was in contention.
Lee Westwood set the tone with the day’s low round, a 67, as he roared past 25 players and joined Els, Blake Adams (70) and Nicolas Colsaerts (71) in that tie for fourth. Given that he was 4 over just six holes into this championship, Westwood is miles improved in the disposition department, much like Els.
“Yeah, great. I had a lot of fun out there,” Westwood said after shaking off bogeys at eight and nine to play his final nine holes in 3 under.
But even as he smiled through his post-round duties, Westwood was joined by a host of others for The Olympic Club Happy Hour.
The personable Fredrik Jacobson did the unthinkable at this beast of a golf course – he ran off three straight birdies, then he added another at the 17th to shoot 68 and push to 1 over, alone in third behind co-leaders Graeme McDowell and Jim Furyk at 1 under.
“It was a beautiful day out there,” Jacobson said, stealing a page from Westwood’s script.
Then again, he could have been borrowing from Els, or even from Blake Adams, who started bogey, double bogey, bogey, then played bogey-free and 4 under the rest of the way to get in the mix.
Or was he taking from Colsaerts, Belgium’s greatest golfer, though an infrequent visitor to pro golf on American soil? But after running off 13 pars and a birdie in his first 14 holes, then steadying the ship after bogeys at 15 and 16, the tall and lanky one signed for 71. Smile, you big Belgian, because in just your third appearance in a major you’re only three off the lead entering the fourth round.
“Indescribable,” Colsaerts said.
Maybe to him, but others tried to capture the flavor of this extraordinary day. Sure, Tiger Woods stumbled badly, but so many others hopped an elevator upward.
“A wild adventure,” said Adams, who was in eighth to start the day, but joint fourth at the end. He was shaking his head, smiling, and shaking his head some more.
It was that sort of day, with so many enjoying brilliant weather and a fiercely challenging golf course. While McDowell made just one bogey in his round of 68 and Furyk held tough to thoroughly outplay Woods, his playing competitor, a long line of guys left The Olympic Club with more promise than they had at the start.
Jacobson is just two off the lead, that four-man group at 2 over sits just three back and if you recall that Lee Janzen came from five back to win the U.S. Open in 1998, the last time it was here at The Olympic Club, then consider this: There are 15 players within five of the lead, a list that includes Woods, one of four at 4 over.
The guess is, only Woods among that long list of players did not wear a smile on this third round of delightful golf, and while so many liked how it unfolded, we’ll allow our visitor from Belgium the last word.
“I knew it was going to be quite good,” Colsaerts said. “But you can’t compare it to anything else.”