Spain and Ireland might be opponents in today’s World Cup showdown in Japan but their golfing representatives, Sergio Garcia and Padraig Harrington, will unite to spearhead The European Tour’s challenge in the final round of the 102nd US Open Championship.
After a pulsating third round on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, New York, Garcia carded a 67 for a one under par total of 209 to finish four shots behind World Number One Tiger Woods, the man he will partner in Sunday’s final round.
Woods, who started the third round three shots clear of the field, was strangely out of sorts in the early part of his round but showed his famous mental toughness allied to his undoubted ability to finally get the tournament back in his grasp.
After bogeys at the fifth and 11th, Woods rolled in birdie putts at the 15th and 17th to finish with a level par round of 70 and a five under par total of 205. Four clear of Garcia, Woods was also five ahead of Jeff Maggert and Phil Mickelson who ended on level par 210, and six in front of Harrington, who carded a 73, Robert Allenby and Billy Mayfair on one over par 211.
“I had a lot of fun out there on the golf course,” said Garcia. “I played really well, that’s what counts, and I’m happy with where I am. I wanted to play with Tiger in the final group – I was trying as hard as I could to make that happen, and now we will see what tomorrow brings.”
Garcia, winner of the Canarias Open de España in April, started as if he meant business, a superb nine iron to seven feet yielding a birdie three at the first hole and another birdie from 20 feet at the eighth saw him reach the turn at two under for the day and level par for the tournament.
A bogey five at the tenth, where he missed the green with his approach, halted the Spaniard’s momentum momentarily but he recovered well with a scintillating birdie two at the 161 yard 14th, his eight iron tee shot almost ending in the hole for an ace.
Garcia’s much publicised gripping and re-gripping before hitting his shots generated a deal of interest and the Spaniard stepped away from his approach to the 16th before exchanging views with a member of the gallery who had urged him to get on with matters.
It spoke volumes for Garcia’s powers of concentration that when he did get down to playing the shot, he found the centre of the green before rolling in the birdie putt which took him into red figures overall, and ensured he would partner Woods in the final group on the final day.
In the third round that honour was bestowed on Harrington and the 30 year old Dubliner looked edgy in the opening stages, a double-bogey at the fifth where he overshot the green into the bunker, followed by dropped shots at the eighth and 11th.
But the Irishman showed great strength of character to battle back with birdies at the 13th and 15th, the latter a superb curling effort from 18 feet to get back into contention.
"I enjoyed the day," said Harrington. "I played a little better towards the end and I was happy overall with the way I played although I did make a couple of mistakes that I wish I hadn't.
"It is difficult to say what is going to happen now. If that was Tiger's bad day, then realistically you don't expect him to go backwards so somebody will have to go really low to beat him. But you never know, and I'll be giving it my best shot."
Earlier in the day, the story had been provided by another European Tour Member, Nick Faldo, who proved the United States Golf Association were one hundred per cent correct in issuing him with a special invitation to compete with a stunning third round performance.
The 44 year old Englishman rolled back the years with a performance reminiscent of the time when he was World Number One, a superb four under par 66 representing the best round of the week over the daunting 7214 yard Black Course and propelling him up the leaderboard into a share of eighth place on two over par 212.
Out in 33, the three time US Open Champion, sporting a ‘I love New York’ baseball cap, got the crowd even further behind him with 20 foot birdie putts at both the 11th and 13th before he rolled in a five footer for another birdie at the 14th.
Even the irritation of a dropped shot at the 15th could not rattle Faldo, another superb tee shot at the short 17th giving him a 15 foot downhill birdie chance which he converted with aplomb before parring the last to the cheers of huge galleries.
"That is as good as I've played for years," said Faldo. "I only missed one fairway and green - the 12th - and that was because I couldn't get there. I hit all other 17 greens which is pretty darned good.
"I am in a good frame of mind this week. I warmed up well before I went out and I just decided to pick my shots, stick to them and hit them and they came off. I have done a lot of good work recently and I'm sure if I can keep this level of performance up I can get back into the winners' circle."
Elsewhere, the other scores posted by European Tour Members were: Ernie Els and Vijay Singh (both 217), Niclas Fasth, Thomas Levet and Greg Norman (all 218), Robert Karlsson and Paul Lawrie (both 219), Darren Clarke, Peter Lonard and Jean Van de Velde (all 220), Greg Norman (222), Thomas Bjorn and Jose Maria Olazabal (both 223), Angel Cabrera, Tom Gillis and Jeev Milkha Singh (all 225), and John Daly (231).