Retief Goosen once again demonstrated his remarkable physical and mental resilience by recovering from a potentially damaging double bogey at the 13th at Pinehurst No.2 to cover the closing five holes in three under par and take a three shot lead into the final round of the 105th US Open Championship.
On a day when the majority of the field toiled to make pars, the phlegmatic defending champion remained ice-cool in the baking North Carolina heat. The South African was one of only two players to break par – the other being the amazing 51 year old, Peter Jacobsen – and his third round 69 means he is the only man with a sub-par total.
Goosen goes into the last day on 207, three under par, and three in front of Americans Jason Gore, the World Number 818, and Olin Browne, with the Antipodeans Michael Campbell of New Zealand and Australian Mark Hensby tied for fourth on 211.
European prospects appear to lie in the hands of qualifier Peter Hedblom of Sweden and England’s Lee Westwood, who shot 70 and 73 respectively, to be three over par – the same mark as World Number One, Tiger Woods, who signed for a 72 with only one birdie to his name.
However there was no questioning Goosen’s authority as he embarked on his quest for a third US Open title. Out in a level par 35, the signs looked ominous when Goosen found the quirky 378 yard 13th too hot to handle.
A double bogey, which coincided with Woods finishing on three over, meant there was only three strokes between them and Woods was noticeably licking his lips.
It was then that Goosen showed how and why he had triumphed at Shinnecock Hills last year. The treacherous conditions seemed made for his equable temperament and he played a stunning recovery from a fairway bunker at the 14th and sank the birdie putt to get back into red figures.
At the short 15th he drained an eight footer to get to two under, and even missed from inside that range on the 17th for another birdie before converting his final opportunity from the fringe of the 18th. Three under for the last five was a superb return for some inspired golf.
Goosen signed his card and then was taken to the US Open Media Centre, where he was asked about his third round 69 and his thoughts on defending his title.
“Well, you've just got to accept on this golf course things like that are going to happen,” he said of his dropped shots. “You're going to quickly make bogey, double bogey around this course if you hit the wrong shot at the wrong time. I just tell myself, you know, it was one bad shot and it cost you, but just I was sort of more determined after that to have a better finish, try and play solid and see if I could finish with one or two birdies maybe.
“I got lucky, finished with three birdies. Could have been four, but I felt pretty good out there today, and I probably felt better than I did yesterday out on the course, a bit more relaxed, quite enjoyed it out there, had a good round with Olin and we had fun.
“It is nice having the lead going into the last round. You know, if it was 12 shots I probably would have been a little bit more comfortable. It's going to be a hard day out there tomorrow – the flags are going to be tucked in the most difficult positions on every hole, so I've just got to go out there and try and play pars on every hole and avoid mistakes like I made today.
“There are a lot of players in the hunt tomorrow. Anything can happen around this course. You can lose three shots very quickly around here but I'm looking forward to the round. I'm fairly comfortable and confident, giving myself a chance out there tomorrow to win it.
“Obviously it would be great to win this event back to back. You know, that's a long way away still, and I'm going to have to wait another 24 hours to see what happens. It would be great, obviously, to be one of those few to win a major back to back. But I don't really want to think about it yet. We know it's going to be tough out there tomorrow to stay with it.”
Gore, meanwhile, birdied the !8th for a 72 and a level par total of 210, while Browne matched that total thanks to a birdie two at the 17th on his way to a 72 of his own.
The fact that Campbell and Hedblom are inside the top ten owed much to their determination to qualify for the US Open at Walton Heath less than a fortnight ago. Campbell birdied the final hole that day to squeeze in while Hedblom needed the best round of the day to make it.
Ten years on from almost winning The Open Championship at St Andrews, Campbell has an opportunity to take the fight to Goosen in the US equivalent.
He holed a wonderful bunker shot for a birdie two at the 17th to close in on the leader.
Hedblom, who opened with a 77, has covered the last 36 holes in four under par after scores of 66 – still the best of the week – and 70. In the third round he was once again making birdies from everywhere, picking up shots at the tenth, 11th and 12th before knocking his approach stone dead at the last for another birdie.
Westwood, who has been lurking successfully all week, dropped two strokes on his way to an outwards 37, but holed a chip at the 11th and sank a huge putt on the 14th to regain his momentum. However a bogey at the 16th halted that, and he required a seven footer at the last only to drop one more shot.
Earlier, Jacobsen, at 51 the oldest player left in the US Open, moved unexpectedly into contention for the title with a hole-in-one at the 175 yard ninth in his third round to turn in a superb 32.
No player older than 48 has ever won a Major title and the oldest winner of the US Open was 45 - Hale Irwin's third victory in the event in 1990. Jacobsen showed he can still cut it with the younger brigade with an inward 37 for a fine 69.
Paul McGinley and Graeme McDowell, relieved to be in the event at all, were unable to make up ground. They qualified right on the limit of eight over par thanks to David Toms, who finished double bogey, triple bogey on Friday night after leading and so got them in under the rule whereby anybody within ten strokes of the lead stays in the tournament.
McGinley, who was at the airport when he got the news, then revealed what happened on Friday night. "There's nothing worse than missing the cut and then missing a flight when the next one is not for 24 hours," he said.
"So I went to the airport an hour and a half away and told the girl on the check-in desk the situation. I was getting calls from my caddie and my manager and there was half an hour before the gate closed when I was told I had made the cut.
"I obviously wouldn't have taken the flight if I hadn't known, but if I'd then missed the cut it would have been a double whammy."
In the event, McGinley fired a 71 for nine over par 219 with McDowell shooting a 72 for ten over.