OAKMONT, Pa. — Aaron Baddeley teetered on the edge of a collapse, staring at bogeys on the golf course and Tiger Woods’ name high on the leaderboard.
He showed he might be up to the challenge.
Baddeley escaped with an amazing par from deep rough at the base of a bunker on the 17th hole, finished strong with a birdie for an even-par 70 and wound up with a two-shot lead over Woods after three rounds of the U.S. Open on Saturday.
The Australian kid who was beating world-class players as an amateur now faces the biggest test of his career.
Woods was nearly perfect from tee-to-green, hitting every green in regulation until he had to lay up from the rough on the 18th hole and took his only bogey for a 69, one of only two rounds under par even though Oakmont’s fearsome greens showed a softer side.
Woods, who has never won a major when trailing going into the final round, will be playing in the last group at a major for the second time this year. He was one shot behind at the Masters and tied for second.
“I’ve been there before, and I know what it takes,” Woods said.
Paul Casey shot a 72 and was at 5-over 215 with Stephen Ames (73), Justin Rose (73) and Bubba Watson (75), who made a triple bogey from the left side of the ninth green but steadied himself with pars and a lone bogey the rest of the way.
The other subpar round belonged to Steve Stricker, who holed out from 74 yards for birdie on the 18th hole for a 68 to give himself a chance at 6-over 216, tied with former champion Jim Furyk (70) and 36-hole leader Angel Cabrera, who slowly lost ground until he chopped his way to a bogey-bogey finish for a 76.
Some thought Baddeley’s moment would have come much earlier.
He won the Australian Open as an 18-year-old amateur in 1999 by holding off Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie, saying then that his goal was to become better than Woods. He won the Australian Open a year later as a pro, but found detours in America, struggling to get his card and picking up his first PGA Tour only last year.
But he showed impressive poise on an Oakmont course that played tamer with accessible hole locations and greens that had been watered three times after the carnage of Friday afternoon.
As the leaders began to lose ground, Baddeley surged ahead. He made three birdies in a four-hole stretch, culminating with a 6-foot putt on the 13th hole that stretched his lead to three. But he took bogey after a tee shot into deep rough on the 15th hole, dropped another shot with a tee shot into the bunker on the par-3 16th and looked to be in big trouble on the 17th.
Opting for an iron off the tee on a hole where Woods earlier drove onto and through the green, Baddeley’s ball tumbled down the slope of a bunker and stayed in the thick grass just above the sand. Gripping the club almost to the shaft, the ball up to his shins, he somehow hit wedge onto the fringe and walked off with a par.
Then came the birdie on No. 18, one more shot between him and Woods.
“I’ve played with Tiger in two Masters,” said Baddeley, who also played with him in 2000. “It’s not abnormal to play with Tiger in the majors. Tiger is the best player in the world, but I feel like I’m playing nicely.”
Woods finally looked like he was on his game, too, on the verge of the first bogey-free round at Oakmont until his tee shot found the right fairway bunker and he couldn’t reach the green. Even so, he couldn’t argue with his position.
“Right in the mix,” Woods said.
Oakmont was on the edge of being close to impossible Friday afternoon, and the USGA responded by twice watering the greens overnight, then again two hours before the third round.
“They took pity on us,” Jeff Brehaut said after his even-par 70 left him six shots behind. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
For the first time all week, attention shifted from the course to the players.
One in particular.
Woods was close to perfect from tee-to-green, giving himself realistic birdie chances on every hole and rarely having to work for par. An 8-iron stopped 8 feet away on No. 3 for birdie, and he followed that with a 3-iron into 20 feet on the par-5 fourth and a chance at eagle. He dropped his putter and placed his hands on his knees when it broke in front of the cup, something Woods got used to seeing.
He had putts inside 15 feet on the fifth and seventh that he barely touched because they were above the hole, longer putts on the eighth and ninth that tickled the edge of the cup.
Most impressive of all was his control, hitting every green in regulation until the final hole.
“If he’d putted like I did, he’d have shot 6 under,” said first-round leader Nick Dougherty, who played with Woods and shot 74. “Tee to green, he’s just awesome. It’s going to take something pretty special to beat him tomorrow. If he plays like that tomorrow, nobody’s going to beat him.”
But just like Saturday at the Masters, Woods didn’t quite finish it off.
He was atop the leaderboard at Augusta National until a bogey-bogey finish put him one shot behind Stuart Appleby.
This time, Woods drove the green on the par-4 17th, but it skidded through and into rough so deep that the best he could do was leave himself about 25 feet for birdie, and he had to make a 5-footer for par. Woods saved his worst tee shot for the end, into a deep bunker right of the fairway with no shot at reaching the green. His third was long, about 15 feet above the hole, and it again grazed the edge.
By then, Baddeley had run off a pair of birdies to get to 1 over. The Australian gave back two shots in the final hour, but he still managed to keep his nose in front and then gave himself a small cushion with the 15-foot birdie on the last hole.
Still, a dozen players were separated by five shots going into the final round on a course that is tough even when the USGA wants it to play slightly easier.
“This golf course doesn’t lend itself to too many birdies,” Ames said. “So the guy who makes the least mistakes will be the guy to win.”