Fear factor gone, but Tiger in the mix

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- The name that used to elicit fear and frothing is right there, poised for an unlikely comeback.

The guy who routinely sent his peers to the psychiatrist's couch emerged from the depths, matching the best score of the tournament.

The No. 1 golfer in the world -- who at one time was deemed to own this place -- showed that he knows how to get around Pebble Beach Golf Links after all.

Is he back?

That was the big question Saturday after Tiger Woods rocked the Monterey Peninsula with a 66 that was his best round of the year and clearly his most impressive performance since returning from a self-imposed exile.

Gone were the scowls and excuses, and in their place were fist pumps and smiles.

The Tiger roars had returned at the U.S. Open.

"It's been awhile. It's been awhile," Woods said. "I hadn't played good enough for anyone to cheer for anything. So it was nice to actually put it together on the back nine and put myself right back in the championship.

"And everyone was just so excited and fired up that it was just a great atmosphere to play in front of."

Whether or not Dustin Johnson and Graeme McDowell -- who played in the last twosome Saturday and will do so again in Sunday's final round -- will be bothered by such a looming shadow is among the compelling aspects to the remaining 18 regulation holes.

Johnson, for one, doesn't seem moved by much of anything. Two of his three PGA Tour victories have come here at Pebble Beach, including one in February, and a Monday practice round with Woods left at least one of them pretty impressed.

"I've played with long hitters who can play, but he hits it just for miles," said Woods, marveling at Johnson's length the way others used to swoon about his own.

There was a time when Woods' mere presence on a leaderboard had those around him diving for cover in bunkers, retreating to the clubhouse or generally disintegrating in distress.

Woods had that much of an affect on people.

Now, not so much.

Woods is still a player to be feared, and as he gets more rounds under his belt, more competition, he will become more of a threat again.

But the days of wilting in his presence, if they're not over, should be. Woods has proved to be fallible too many times, scandal or not.

"He's human, too," Johnson said. "I'm going to do my best not to let it affect me."

Woods is still an incredible player who is sorting through personal and emotional issues that happen to coincide with problems with his golf swing. When all gets sorted, watch out.

Still, the simple fact that he coughed up a 54-hole major championship lead last summer in Minnesota at the PGA should be all the positive reinforcement players such as McDowell, Johnson and Ernie Els need. Y.E. Yang offered a perfect example to the world of how to play Woods: Play your own game; don't worry about his.

Woods, as it turns out, makes mistakes like the rest of them. Plenty of them, as we have seen in recent tournaments such as Quail Hollow (missed cut), Players Championship (withdrawal) and Memorial (T19).

Johnson, for one, appears oblivious to any perceived intimidation factor -- which seems silly, given his own prodigious length.

"He's the best player in the game, and it's not a surprise to see that he's right there," Johnson said. "But I'm not worried about Tiger. I can't do anything about what he does. I can only control what I do."

After entering the third round tied for 25th after very mediocre rounds of 74-72, Woods bogeyed two of his first three holes to fall nine shots back of McDowell, who had yet to tee off.

Did anybody see Woods winning his 15th major championship then?

"I just kept telling myself all day, 'You just need to get back to even par for the tournament,'" Woods said. "'Whatever you do, get back to even par for the tournament, and I'll be right back in the ballgame.'"

That meant going 6 under, and somehow, Woods did one better than that. He made three straight birdies starting at the fourth hole, made a bogey at the eighth, then birdied the 11th, 13th, 16th, 17th and 18th. His eight birdies were his most ever in a U.S. Open round, and the 66 tied Phil Mickelson and Johnson for best of the tournament.

"All the Opens I've won [three], I've had one stretch of nine holes," Woods said. "It doesn't have to be on a back nine or front, just a nine-hole stretch where you put it together.

"That's what most Open champions have done, and I did it today. I got myself back in the championship with those nine holes. At Torrey Pines [two years ago], the back nine on Saturday, as well."

That, of course, was one of the most dramatic nine holes Woods ever played. He made two eagles and finished birdie-eagle to bolt into the lead.

This time, Woods hit 11 of 14 fairways and 11 of 18 greens and needed just 26 putts.

But he's still 5 strokes back, and he has never come from behind on the final day to win a major championship -- an anomaly that once seemed as sure to wither as those competitors all around him.

These days, when it comes to Woods, all that is certain is the uncertainty.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.