Lee Westwood will carry the hopes and good wishes of every single European golf fan with him when he embarks on a Tiger hunt in the final round of the US Open Championship at Torrey Pines.
The 35 year old Englishman seemed destined to take the lead himself into the final round on the South Course before a truly astonishing finish from Woods – something the World Number One seems to reserve for the Major Championship arena – saw the American grab pole position.
When the dust had settled, both players had carded third round 70s to give Woods a three under par total of 210 with Westwood a shot further back on 211, while American Rocco Mediate had the honour of being the only other player to complete three rounds in red figures, finishing on one under par 212 after his 72.
But those mere statistics do little to explain the sheer drama and compelling theatre which unfolded over the closing stages of the 2008 season’s second Major Championship.
Westwood started the day two shots adrift of halfway leader Stuart Appleby but, as the Australian endured a day to forget and slipped down the leaderboard, Westwood’s patience and determination on the testing South Course ensured he travelled in the opposite direction.
Level par for the round through ten holes – after a dropped shot at the eighth and a birdie at the tenth – the European Ryder Cup man pitched to three feet for birdie at the par five 13th before showing a steely resolve to finish with five straight pars as the pressure began to crank up.
Indeed he had a chance for a closing birdie four on the 18th after finding the back of the green with two mighty blows, but after his eagle putt finished four feet short of the hole, his birdie effort down the hill trickled past the right edge of the cup.
“It is just the position I want to be in,” said Westwood as he sat down in the expansive Media Centre interview room in the lead in the tournament. However, out on the golf course, Woods – still in obvious pain from the knee surgery he underwent a little under two months ago – was mounting the most astonishing of rearguard actions to change all that.
Having gotten off to another poor start, the World Number One was three over par after four holes of his third round and indeed, such was the erratic nature of his game that he was still two over par for the round through 14 holes despite an audacious 50 foot putt down the green for an eagle three at the 13th.
But just when Westwood was getting comfortable with the thought of leading a Major Championship into the final round for the first time, and most probably in the company of Mediate, Woods produced a finish which set the San Diego venue alight.
First up was an audacious birdie three at the 441 yard 17th. In the crowd from a poor drive and in the face of a greenside bunker after his recovery shot, a scrambled par four seemed the World Number One’s best outcome, but he made a mockery of that, popping the ball out of the rough and straight into the hole after one solitary bounce.
It was a fine stroke but, as with all such shots, it featured an element of good fortune and at least Woods had the good grace to crease his face with a wry and beaming smile as he was dragged up the bank to celebrate with caddie Steve Williams.
However, if that had been incredible, it had nothing on what happened at the 18th.
With Westwood still telling the world’s media how he was going to tackle taking the lead into the final round in an attempt to become the second European born player to win a Major Championship in the past 11 months following Padraig Harrington’s Open Championship success at Carnoustie last June, Woods went and moved the goalposts.
Having found the back of the green at the 18th in two, the pre-tournament favourite then proceeded to curl in a 30 footer for a closing eagle three to leapfrog the Englishman into the lead and send the crowds in the stands and around the putting surface wild with delirium.
To his credit, Westwood remained stoically calm and reminded his audience that he had indeed come from behind to beat Woods in the past, at the Deutsche Bank tournament in Hamburg in 2000 when he started the final round two shots adrift but romped to the title with a fine closing 64.
The bad news for Westwood is, of course, that in each and every one of his previous 13 Major Championship victories, Woods has started the final day in front.
Nevertheless, the last European born player to win the US Open was Westwood’s compatriot Tony Jacklin at Hazeltine National in 1970 and the Englishman focused on that as his incentive going into the biggest day to date of his 15 year professional career.
“He (Jacklin) won it before I was even born so obviously it would be great to follow in his footsteps. It is the reason that I practice every day to get into this position and try to win Major Championships.
“I think I’ve won pretty much everything else there is to win, something like 29 tournaments worldwide so I’ve proved I can win golf tournaments. But players are always rated on how many Major Championship they have won so it is a good opportunity I have now given myself.”
Woods admitted he had been more than a little fortunate at the 17th. “I hit just the worst tee shot I have ever hit and, honestly, I was just thinking to myself, whatever you do here, just don’t make six. Just give yourself a chance of making four and then, bam, I walk away with a three.
“The shot I hit had no business going into the hole. I hit it too hard but then one hop and it’s in. After I had hit it I thought I would have an eight to ten footer coming back down the hill for par – but that’s the way it goes sometimes.
“At the 18th, I knew the putt was going to continue breaking. I’ve had that putt before and it usually straightens out in the end. When it dropped in, I knew I’d read it right!
“As far as tomorrow is concerned, it’s an old cliché but you have to just look at staying patient and staying in the moment and progressing one shot at a time. As I said it’s a cliché but it is never truer than at the US Open. You just cannot get ahead of yourself at this event.”
Third placed Mediate will have the 2006 Champion, Australia’s Geoff Ogilvy, for company in the penultimate grouping after Ogilvy’s third round 72 for a one over par total of 214 saw him tie American D J Trahan – who carded a 73 - for fourth place.
Aside from Westwood, the European Tour challenge faltered slightly in the third round, the other main protagonists, Robert Karlsson who partnered Woods and Miguel Angel Jimenez who partnered Westwood, both slipping back after respective rounds of 75 and 74 saw them end together in a share of sixth place on two over par 215. Indeed the Swede and the Spaniard will partner each other in the fifth last match of the final day.
Elsewhere, Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia ended the day in a share of 11th place on 216, Oliver Wilson was tied 15th on 217, while Martin Kaymer was tied 19th on 218.
All will be battling hard and retain an outside chance of lifting the title itself but, in truth, all eyes will be on Westwood and Woods. It promises to be a day to remember.