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Tiger Woods Shoots 66, Trails Dustin Johnson by Five Shots at U.S. Open

Tiger Woods thrust himself back into contention at golf’s U.S. Open yesterday by matching the lowest score of the tournament, a 5-under-par 66 that left him five shots off the lead entering the final round.

Woods birdied eight of his final 15 holes, including three straight to end the round at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California, to get to 1-under par. He’s one of three golfers below par, trailing fellow American Dustin Johnson (-6) and Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell (-3).

Winless since returning to golf after his admission of marital infidelity, the three-time U.S. Open champion vaulted to third place from 25th yesterday. Woods birdied five of the final nine holes, once again hearing roars from the crowd and displaying his celebratory fist pump.

“It’s been a while,” Woods said. “I hadn’t played good enough for anyone to cheer for anything. It was nice to actually put it together on the back nine and put myself right back in the championship. Everyone was so excited and fired up; it was a great atmosphere to play in front of.”

Woods and Johnson were both 5 under yesterday to match Phil Mickelson’s second-round 66 for the lowest score at this year’s second major championship.

Mickelson followed up with a 2-over 73 yesterday, when the left-hander started with consecutive bogeys, was forced to hit a chip right-handed en route to a double-bogey and closed with a penalty on the 18th hole. He’s in sixth place at 1 over.

“I’m quite a few shots back. Probably more than I thought I would be,” said Mickelson, a five-time U.S. Open runner-up. “But anything can happen on Sunday and if you make a move you can make up a lot of ground.”

Johnson’s Eagle

Johnson, 25, surged to the top of the leaderboard with two birdies and an eagle in a four-hole stretch yesterday. He eagled the 284-yard, par-4 fourth hole after reaching the green with his tee shot. Johnson finished his round with consecutive birdies, including a putt of about 30 feet on the par-3 17th, to build a three-shot cushion over McDowell, who made bogeys at the 16th and 17th holes.

Johnson has had previous success on the Monterey Peninsula. Two of his three U.S. PGA Tour wins came at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, in 2009 and 2010.

“I really like playing here,” said Johnson, who tied for 40th and 48th in his previous U.S. Open appearances the past two years. “Nothing is going to change with the game plan.”

Woods will be paired with France’s Gregory Havret in today’s second-to-last group behind Johnson and McDowell. Havret is even par, along with two-time U.S. Open winner Ernie Els of South Africa. Woods will tee off at 2:05 p.m. local time -- 5:05 p.m. on the East Coast.

Prime-Time Golf

Most of today’s final round will be televised during prime time in the New York area, the U.S.’s largest media market, and having Woods back in contention could prove to be the best news golf has had since his win at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, according to Brad Adgate, research director at Horizon Media, a New York-based advertising company.

“If anyone is happier than Tiger, it’s NBC Sports,” Adgate said in an e-mail interview, referring to the tournament’s fourth-round U.S. broadcaster. “His climb up the leaderboard should boost ratings for the final round.”

Woods’s win at Torrey Pines, where he beat Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole playoff, produced the highest U.S. Open ratings since his previous win at Bethpage Black course in New York in 2002. The 2008 tournament marked the first time the U.S. Open was aired in prime time.

Tiger’s Rally

The largest 36-hole deficit Woods has overcome to win a major was six strokes at the 2005 Masters. He started yesterday’s third round seven shots out of the lead and dropped nine back with his early bogeys.

Woods recovered with three straight birdies on holes 4, 5 and 6 before making a bogey at the eighth hole.

Woods then shot 31 on the back nine, dropping birdie putts on the 11th and 13th holes and adding three more to finish his round. He gave a fist pump after his birdie putt on the par-4 16th hole dropped. Woods again brought the fans to their feet at the par-3 17th, where he pointed to the sky after his curling 12-foot putt from the fringe fell into the cup.

On the par-5 18th, Woods hit 3-wood for his second shot from about 260 yards away, then hopped to his left to get a better view around a tree, put his hands on his knees and shouted at his ball to get on the green. It stopped about 15 feet from the flag and Woods tapped in for birdie after just missing his eagle attempt.

‘Nine-Hole Stretch’

“All the Opens that I’ve won, I’ve had one stretch of nine holes,” Woods said. “It doesn’t have to be on a back nine or a front nine, just a nine-hole stretch where you put it together. I got myself back in the championship.”

The last tournament Woods won when trailing after 54 holes was the 2009 Memorial, where he shot a final-round 65 to overcome a four-stroke deficit and beat Jim Furyk by one.

To contact the reporters on this story: Erik Matuszewski in Pebble Beach, California, at matuszewski@bloomberg.net Michael Buteau in Pebble Beach, California, at mbuteau@bloomberg.net

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