California (Reuters) – Dustin Johnson was targeted by the game’s best players before the start of this week’s U.S. Open and he will remain firmly fixed in their sights for Sunday’s final round.
The long-hitting American, seeking his first major title, fired a sparkling five-under-par 66 in Saturday’s third round at Pebble Beach to move three strokes clear of a high-quality leaderboard.
Johnson birdied the last two holes to leave world number one Tiger Woods trailing by five and second-ranked Phil Mickelson by seven, two players who had specifically sought him out for practice rounds earlier in the week.
Woods and Mickelson were eager to watch the Pebble Beach expert in action, Johnson having won the last two PGA Tour events played at the picturesque coastal venue.
“The first time I walked out here, I loved the place,” Johnson told reporters after posting a six-under total of 207 with only two other players under par. “And I really enjoy playing golf here.
“Length’s an advantage at a lot of places but definitely here, especially if I’m hitting it in the fairway, because the ball is going a long way. I’m hitting it extra far.”
Johnson astonished Woods during a practice round at Pebble Beach on Monday when he struck a four-iron 226 yards into the wind to end up pin high at the par-three 17th.
“He doesn’t hit it short, that’s for sure,” Woods said with a laugh after matching Johnson’s 66 on Saturday. “I don’t know how many guys have that shot but I certainly don’t.
“He carried a four-iron 226 into the wind, and (caddie) Steve (Williams) and I are thinking: ‘Well that’s a two-iron, you got to hit a good two-iron.’ And Dustin just pulls out four-iron like it was nothing.”
Mickelson, who carded a 73 in the third round, played a practice round with Johnson on Tuesday and was not at all surprised to see his compatriot atop the U.S. Open leaderboard.
“He’s played good golf, exceptional golf,” left-hander Mickelson said. “It’s not an easy golf course, and he’s striking it very solid and putting well. That’s what you have to do to win an Open and he’s doing it.”
Johnson, a three-times winner on the PGA Tour who will celebrate his 26th birthday on Tuesday, felt confident about his chances of holding on at Pebble Beach to seal victory.
“I’m going to have to be really patient,” he said. “If I keep hitting like I’ve been hitting and putting it in the spots on the green, then I’m going to be tough to beat.
“You couldn’t ask for a better present. This is what I live for, this is what I practise for every day. This is what we play golf for is to have a chance to win the U.S. Open.”
(Editing by John O’Brien)