SAN FRANCISCO – The expectations came back before Tiger Woods did.
For the longest time, there was a sense of inevitability about Woods when he was in front going into the weekend at a major championship. Eight times he had the outright lead after 36 holes, and eight times he went on to win, a streak that Y.E. Yang finally ended in 2009 at the PGA Championship.
The circumstances were slightly different Saturday at the U.S. Open.
This was the first time Woods has shared the lead at a major going into the third round, and the other leaders had some experience.
The other difference?
This is 2012.
Woods had six bogeys and only one birdie for a 75 on Saturday and ended the day at plus-4. The 14-time major champion will begin the final round five shots back of Graeme McDowell and Jim Furyk.
At 1 under, the two major champions are the only players at the unforgiving Olympic Club course under par.
Woods is not the 24-year-old who completed the career Grand Slam at St. Andrews, nor was this the 30-year-old who won consecutive majors.
He is 36.
He has gone through four operations on his left knee.
He has gone through public scrutiny of a very private life.
In some respects, this week could be the start of a new era for Woods, who will always be compared against his old era.
This business of the new Tiger looking like the old Tiger needs to stop, for no other reason than the new Tiger is older. For all this talk about whether Woods is really back, he has won two times this year on the PGA Tour, and that’s as many as anyone else. Woods won five times in 2003 and it used to be called a slump because it didn’t include a major championship.
Woods was among the leaders going into the third round at The Olympic Club, and the expectations were that he would win the U.S. Open for a record-tying fourth time, and finally get to his 15th major in his delayed pursuit of Jack Nicklaus.
It’s hard to imagine Woods not expecting the same thing.
He closed with a 67 to win at Memorial, then joined Furyk and David Toms as the only players who had not gone over par this week before Saturday’s rough round.
It’s one thing to have a game plan, but you also have to execute the game plan, Woods said Thursday. And I think that’s one of the reasons why I was so excited about how I hit the ball at Memorial, because that’s what I needed to play here. I hit the ball so well there and the different trajectories, that was big for me. And to come here and then be able to shape it like this – because I have to, I have to shape it here – I’ve done a pretty good job of that for the first two days.
His former caddie, Steve Williams, once said that what looked like the easiest of Sundays felt like one of the hardest.
He was talking about the Buick Open in 2009.
Woods went into the final round with a one-shot lead over a group of players that made it look like a Nationwide Tour leaderboard. Only two of the seven guys behind him had won on tour, and none was ranked among the top 100.
The tournament, in the eyes of everyone except the players, was over.
Saturday could have gone a long way toward raising the expectations even higher.
Woods is known for closing on Sunday, but he traditionally has set himself up for the win on Saturday.
In his 14 major wins, his scoring average in the third round is 68.3 and he has had the lowest score of the third round five times.
And he had never had a round over par.