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Woods endures charge, holds onto Open lead |

Woods endures charge, holds onto Open lead

| Sunday, June 16, 2002 12:00 a.m

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — It didn’t seem all that complicated for a long time Saturday afternoon at the U.S. Open on the Bethpage Black Course on Long Island.

Tiger Woods has seven major championship titles. In all of those, he’s led after the third round.

He leads this morning by four shots and a 3:30 p.m. tee time awaits his pursuit of the second leg of golf’s Grand Slam.

And then, Sergio Garcia made a birdie on the 16th hole, pushing himself into the final group with Woods.

Big deal• Well, as a matter of fact …

How about Woods and Sergio Garcia playing in the final group, just two days after Garcia intimated that the USGA gave Woods preferential treatment in starting times and how the tournament was conducted in reference to Woods?

Garcia fought back from a bad front nine yesterday to shoot a 67, while Woods needed to make birdies on two of his final four holes to finish at even-par 70. It was a battle on the longest U.S. Open course ever (7,214 yards), but the personal battle between professional golf’s most exciting players could even be better.

“I left a note in his locker this morning, telling him I didn’t mean anything bad to him,” Garcia said. “How will it be (today)• I don’t know, it all depends on him. I hope we’ll talk, but that’s why we have caddies to talk to.”

As Garcia’s post-round news conference was coming to an end, Woods entered the tent from a side door and Garcia glanced in his direction. When he left the stage, Garcia shook Woods’ hand and the two had a brief exchange.

“First, I didn’t see the note this morning,” Woods said when asked about it. “It was awfully nice of him to leave a note. That tells me something about him. I’m looking forward to (today). It will be a lot of fun competing with him. Will there be much talking• I like to talk to my caddy, he likes to talk to his. Otherwise, I don’t like to talk a lot and he doesn’t, either.

“Was I angry at what Sergio said• No, not at all, because I know Sergio is a very emotional player and he was obviously frustrated at the way he played.”

Garcia, whose whining was strongly rebuked by the USGA’s Tom Meeks, bogeyed his first hole of the day before making birdies on the fourth and eighth holes to get back to even par. He bogeyed the 10th hole.

He got back to even again with a brilliant tee shot on the par-3 14th, nearly flying the ball into the cup. He added another at No. 16 to get to 1-under.

While 13 players shot rounds in the 60s with the course playing a bit easier yesterday, Woods actually expanded his lead by a shot, even though he didn’t make a birdie until the 15th hole of his round.

“Today was a long day,” Woods said. “I didn’t hit the ball particularly well starting out and seemed like I was over par all day. Once I saw that some guys were starting to make a run, I had to keep telling myself that they had to come get me. Even if I parred in, I was still going to have the lead because they were running out of holes.”

Padraig Harrington didn’t last long in the category of challenger. He bogeyed the third hole, double-bogeyed the fifth and bogeyed the eighth for a front-nine 38 that dropped him to 1-over going to the back.

Things got worse, however, as he bogeyed the 11th, too. He finished at 1-over.

Phil Mickelson, who started the day at 3-over, bogeyed the first hole, double-bogeyed the third, birdied the fourth, bogeyed the fifth and birdied the seventh, eighth and ninth holes. In the first nines holes, Mickelson had three pars. He added birdies on the 13th and 15th before bogeying 18 to go into the final round at even par.

Through three holes, Mickelson was 10 shots behind Woods.

“I knew that I needed to get it turned around, but the last thing on my mind was trying to get in contention to win this tournament because even if I get it back, if Tiger goes out and shoots 3- or 4-under-par, it wouldn’t make any difference,” Mickelson said.

Tied with Mickelson is Jeff Maggert, who has struggled significantly with his game recently.

“Well, it’s easier to play when you’re a few shots behind, especially when the course was susceptible to some birdies,” Maggert said. “The course definitely played about as easy as it could have played today.”

Robert Allenby and Billy Mayfair are tied with Harrington at 1-over. Nick Faldo and Justin Leonard are at 2-over.

The stage is set for a battle of significant proportions today. Whether the battle is the one on the golf course or the personal one between Woods and Garcia remains to be seen. Woods said neither scenario is what will drive him today.

“It’s dreams. This is what we’ve dreamed about when we were little kids practicing and playing until late in the evening,” he said. “Imagining yourself winning the U.S. Open, putting yourself against the best players, playing two or three balls. That’s what it’s all about, going out there and competing. I love to compete. And being in the final group in the final round of a major championship, that’s where you want to be, that’s the thrill of it.”

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