Fate is either being incredibly kind or sadistically cruel to Gary Woodland.
Either it’s coaxing him along to his first major victory in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, or setting him up for enormous heartache.
Woodland enters the final round Sunday with a one-shot lead over Justin Rose, but only because skill met good fortune on the back nine of the third round.
You’re not supposed to be able hit into the gnarly rough on five consecutive full swings and walk away without the scorecard being bruised. Woodland did by making three scrambling par saves at the 12th, 13th and 14th holes on his way to shooting a two-under-par 69 that put him at 11-under 202 — the third-lowest 54-hole total in 119 Opens.
Woodland, 35, is on top of the three-round pedestal for the first time in his 31 major starts, but here’s how precarious the perch is: Three of his four closest pursuers have won majors, and one of those is the man, Brooks Koepka, who has been greedy with the biggest trophies lately.
With a third-round 68, Koepka put himself four shots back of Woodland and has a legitimate shot to become the first golfer since Willie Anderson in the early 1900s to capture three straight U.S. Opens. A win here would be Koepka’s fifth in a major in the span of two years.
So is Woodland going to get punked by the golf gods?
“Brooks has obviously played phenomenal,” Woodland said. “I don’t know if anybody has done what he’s been doing since Tiger [Woods] did it.
“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.”
Tied with Kopeka at seven under are South African Louis Ooshuizen (68), the 2010 British Open champion, and Chez Reavie (68), a 37-year-old who’s never been this close to winning a major and hasn’t lifted any kind of tour trophy in 11 years. Rose also scored 68.
As he was in the third round, Woodland will be paired Sunday with his Florida neighbor Rose, who, similarly, trailed by two strokes heading into the final round of the 2013 U.S. Open he won at Merion.
Rose closed his first major win by shooting 70, overcoming Phil Mickelson and Jason Day by two shots.
“One back gives me the freedom to feel like I’ve got everything to gain, nothing to lose,” said Rose, who is ranked fourth in the world to Woodland’s placing at No. 25.
“I’m so close to Gary that I have to go out and play my game tomorrow. I think it’s going to be dictated by the pin placements and the weather, as to how aggressive you can be and what it will take to win. I make no predictions tonight on what tomorrow is going to feel like.”
“I went out and played beautifully,” said Woodland, who earned his tour card and has held it ever since.
Woodland has managed the challenges of Pebble Beach tremendously, suffering a total of only two bogeys in three rounds — both coming on the easier front nine.
By all rights, he should written down a couple of bad numbers on Saturday’s back nine, but for one stunning chip at 12 and a long, par-saving putt at 14.
Woodland said he thought he hit a great shot at the par-three 12th, even showing off by twirling his club. But his ball ended up in a horrible lie in deep fescue next to the greenside bunker. Standing awkwardly in the sand, choking up on the club, Woodland said he fully shanked his punch, and it ended up on the green’s collar, 33 feet from the hole.
“I was trying to chip it down close, take 4 and move on,” Woodland said, “and the ball came out, perfectly executed chip, and nice to go in.”
At the par-five 14th, his foot slipped on his drive and Woodland’s ball ended up in the right rough. Then the tall grass grabbed his club on the second shot, and he was in the rough again. He had to lay up his third shot just short of the green, and he chunked his fourth shot, with his ball barely staying above the false front of the green.
Forty-three feet from the hole, Woodland hit his putt with perfect speed and it dropped in the cup.
On both par-saving occasions, Rose topped Woodland with birdies to keep the pressure on.
“Putting definitely has been — to coin an American phrase — the MVP, for sure,” Rose said.
It has never been a strength for Woodland, but his newfound confidence on the greens has been evident this week.
Last August in the PGA Championship at Bellerive in St. Louis, Woodland played in a final-round group with Woods, who drove the crowd into a frenzy with a charge that nearly caught Koepka.
He believes that prepared him for this challenge.
“What I’ve learned from that situation is I can’t control everybody else,” Woodland said. “I can control my attitude, and I can control my game. And that’s what I’m out here to do.”