Johnson leads, but Tiger powers into contention at Pebble Beach

Tiger Woods sank one birdie after another, more than he had ever made in one round of the US Open, each of them followed by cheers that could be heard down the Pacific coastline at Pebble Beach.

PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA // Tiger Woods sank one birdie after another, more than he had ever made in one round of the US Open, each of them followed by cheers that could be heard down the Pacific coastline at Pebble Beach. Dustin Johnson didn't realise they were for Woods. He played like he did not care. Johnson closed with two birdies for a 5-under 66 to build a three-shot lead over Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland.

"If I keep hitting like I've been hitting, then I'm going to be tough to beat," Johnson said after the third round was completed on Saturday. Johnson is the two-time defending champion at the PGA Tour event at Pebble Beach, and he looks just as tough when the conditions are fast and scary and a US Open trophy is on the line. All he lacks is the experience of 14 majors that Woods brought to the final round.

Nine shots out of the lead after a pair of sloppy bogeys early in his round, Woods came to life by making the vital putts and hitting the extraordinary shots that have been missing since he returned to competition two months ago. He finally looked like the Woods of old, closing out his round with three birdies, none more Tiger-like than the par-5 18th. Blocked by a cypress tree from about 260 yards away with the ocean breeze in his face, Woods sent his 3-wood around the left side of the tree, out toward the Pacific and onto the green 15 feet from the pin for his eighth birdie of the round.

He shot a 66, his best score of the year, and his 31 on the back nine was eight shots better than the course average, prompting cheers from the gallery. "It's been a while," Woods said. "I hadn't played good enough for anyone to cheer anything. So it was nice to actually put it together on the back nine and put myself right back in the championship." It was a brilliant display that gave him a shot at his 15th major championship and fourth US Open.

Then along came Johnson, who made it more of a long shot for Woods with two final birdies that put him at 6-under 207, five shots clear of the world's No 1 player. Between them was McDowell, who struggled down the stretch, fell out of the lead on the 17th and finished with a 71. McDowell was to play in the final group with Johnson, neither of them with experience contending in a major. Ahead of them would be a familiar red shirt, with a game that is starting to look familiar, too.

"All the Opens that I've won, I've had one stretch of nine holes where you put it together," Woods said. "That's what most Open champions have done. And I did it today." Johnson, who played a practice round with Woods last Monday, is not the type to get flustered. Asked how he would feel with a chance to win his first major, the 25-year-old American smiled as if he knew he had a winning hand. "I think I'm going to feel good," he said.

Woods had been raving about Johnson's power all week, having played the final round of the Memorial with him and the practice round on Monday, after which Woods called him "stupid (amazingly) long." Johnson showed that in the third round. The US Golf Association moved the tees forward on No 4 to make it play 284 yards up the hill and tempt players to try to drive the green. Johnson did just that, with a 3-iron to four feet for an eagle. And on the 18th, the same hole where Woods hit 3-wood off the tee and 3-wood onto the green for the loudest cheer of the day, Johnson got there with a driver and a 6-iron.

"Length is an advantage a lot of places, but definitely here, especially if I'm hitting it in the fairway," Johnson said. "Because the ball is going a long way. I'm hitting it extra far." Johnson, McDowell and Woods were the only three players who remained under par after 54 holes, while Ernie Els (72) and Gregory Havret of France (69) were at even-par 213. Phil Mickelson stumbled at the start of the third round, nearly fell apart along the coastal holes when he had to play one shot right-handed, and had to scramble for par on the closing hole when his tee shot bounced off the rocks and rolled back down on the beach.

Mickelson, runner-up in the US Open a record five times, finished the round with a 73 and was seven shots out of the lead. "I didn't hit it as well as I did yesterday, so I had to fight pretty hard to get some up-and-downs ? some ridiculous up-and-downs ? to keep it within striking distance," said Mickelson, who was at 1-over 214. * AP