SAN DIEGO -- Tiger Woods delivered a performance worthy of prime time Saturday in the U.S. Open.
He kept an East Coast television audience and a sellout crowd at Torrey Pines in suspense when his left knee buckled and he nearly dropped to the ground from the sheer pain, limping along with his club as a cane. The drama came on the last six holes, when he turned a five-shot deficit into a one-shot lead.
And the amazing array of shots that put him atop the leaderboard? Pure science fiction.
"The stuff he does, it's unreal," said Rocco Mediate, who watched it all unfold from the group behind.
First came Woods' 70-foot eagle putt on the 13th to get back in the game. Then it was a chip that he struck too hard, only to bow his head and laugh when it one-hopped into the hole for birdie on the 17th. Woods ended one of his most exciting rounds in a major with a 30-foot eagle putt on the 18th hole for a 1-under 70 and a one-shot lead over Lee Westwood.
It was pure theater at Torrey Pines, leaving 50,000 fans and even his competitors wondering what hit them.
"It's just the most amazing display of athletic, mental power that there is, there ever was," said Mediate, who had a three-shot lead early on the back nine until a four-hole meltdown. "Look at him. He hasn't played in 10 weeks. There's no surprise to me, but he hasn't played for 10 weeks! And he comes here. So I'm not surprised. I can't wait to see what happens tomorrow."
A Woods sequel usually is no mystery.
He has never lost a major when he has at least a share of the 54-hole lead, and it has been seven years since anyone beat him anywhere in the world when he had the lead to himself.
But there never has been so much uncertainly with his name atop the leaderboard in a major.
"Is it getting worse? Yes, it is," Woods said about the burning pain in his left knee from surgery April 15 to clean out cartilage.
The knee caved in after a tee shot on the 15th, again on the 17th, and it stung so badly that he bowed his head and winced on a 5-wood to the 18th, never watching the ball clear the pond and settle 30 feet from the cup.
"I just keep telling myself that if it grabs me and if I get that shooting pain, I get it," Woods said. "But it's always after impact. So go ahead and just make the proper swing if I can."
He played the final six holes in 4-under par -- and that included a bogey -- and will play in the final group for the sixth time in the last eight majors. This is the first time he has held a 54-hole lead in the U.S. Open since he won at Bethpage Black in 2002.
Woods was at 3-under 210, one of only three players still under par.
Westwood was as solid as Woods was spectacular, playing his final 10 holes without a bogey. He holed a short birdie putt on the par-5 13th and finished with five straight pars, missing a 4-foot birdie on the last hole for a 70. The 35-year-old Englishman has never had this good an opportunity in a major.
He isn't without experience.
The only time Woods failed to win a tournament when leading by more than one shot in the final round, it was Westwood who beat him in Germany eight years ago. Now he has a chance to become the first European to win the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin of England at Hazeltine in 1970.
"That would be great to follow in his footsteps," Westwood said. "I've won pretty much everything else there is to win. But players are always rated on how many major championships they have won. So it's a good opportunity to try and win one of those."
Mediate, trying to become the oldest U.S. Open champion at age 45, looked as though he would leave everyone behind when he made an 8-foot birdie putt on No. 10 to reach 4 under and kept putting his shots in the fairway and on the green.
But a three-putt bogey on the 13th was the start of a four-hole stretch that he played 4-over par. That included a chip he bladed over the green and into a bunker for double bogey on the 15th. He had to settle for a 72 and was at 1-under 212.
Woods, grimacing with every step over the final hour in sunshine, lightly pumped his fist and smiled when his 30-foot eagle on the final hole broke sharply to the right down the hill and straightened in time to fall into the cup for his third eagle of the tournament.
There were other reasons to look so content.
"I'm done," Woods said. "It was nice that I could finish this round."
Then it was off to his room to ice his left knee, hopeful he can make it through 18 more holes in a major he hasn't won in six years.
Not many would have guessed he would be in this position when he stood on the back of the 13th green, five shots out of the lead, facing a dangerously quick putt down the ridge from 70 feet. It was reminiscent of his putt on the 17th green at Sawgrass in 2001, minus the island. The line was perfect, speeding down the slope and bending sharply to the left in the final foot for an unlikely eagle.
Woods turned and pumped both fists, walking briskly.
But it was the tee shot two holes later where the pain could no longer be disguised. He took his hand off the driver immediately and bent to the ground, balancing himself with his right finger twice. Two holes later, he again failed to get through the swing and sent his tee shot well to the right, again doubling over.
Woods put his approach on the 17th into thick grass between a bunker and the green, giving him an awkward stance with his weight on the painful left side. The flop shot came out hot, and Woods looked concerned as he barked out instruction: "Bite!"
It took one hop and disappeared in the bottom of the cup, and Woods broke into embarrassing laughter as caddie Steve Williams held out his hand to help him onto the green.
"It was just exciting all day," Mediate said. "It was cool to be a part of that."
The third round sure didn't shape up to contain that much excitement at the start.
Woods opened with a double bogey for the second time in three days, but he wasn't alone in his misery.
Stuart Appleby, who had a one-shot lead to start the third round, took four putts from 18 feet on No. 5 for a double bogey and turned a 3-foot birdie into a three-putt bogey on the ninth. He made his only birdie on the 18th hole to break 80.
D.J. Trahan three-putted for par on the 18th hole and threw his ball in the pond after a 73, leaving him at 1-over 214 along with former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, who overcame a double bogey on the 14th for a 72.
Phil Mickelson finally put a driver in his bag, but it was the wedge that ended his dream of a U.S. Open victory in his hometown. In a "Tin Cup" moment without the water, Lefty watched three lob wedge shots from 80 yards roll back to his feet on the par-5 13th before the fourth stayed up, and then he three-putted for a quadruple-bogey 9 -- his highest score in 1,206 holes at the U.S. Open -- on his way to a 76. He was at 10-over 223.
"I've had a 9 on 13," Mickelson said. "I was 8 years old. I have had a 9 there."