PINEHURST, N.C. (AP) -Three of the best players in the world.

One birdie between them.

And one U.S. Open trophy slipping slowly from their grasp.

On a day when the Open never seemed so wide open, Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia set off on a hot afternoon to make the charge for the lead that almost everyone in the huge crowds massed around Pinehurst No. 2 expected.

What they got instead was an old-fashioned lesson from an old-fashioned golf course that frustrated them at every turn.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Woods said to playing partner Rocco Mediate after scrambling to save his par on the final hole.

Woods had more reason to be happy than Singh or Garcia. At least he could go home after a tough day at the office and say he made a birdie. When it came on the 11th hole, he raised his arms, closed his eyes and looked toward the sky. He then licked his index finger and traced a number in the air as if to say, “Chalk one up.”

The total for Singh and Garcia? Zilch, zero.

No birdies, nothing even really close. Just a lot of frustration, and some numbers that likely eliminated them from any hope they had of winning their first Open title.

Singh, who began the day just two shots off the lead, shot a 74 and trails Retief Goosen by seven shots going into Sunday’s final round. It was the first time since the PGA Championship last August that Singh went an entire round without a birdie – a tournament, by the way, that he won. Garcia was another shot back after his 5-over 75.

Compared to them, Woods was sitting pretty. Not only did he make a birdie, but his 72 left the top player in the world six shots back and still somewhat optimistic about adding an Open title to his Masters win.

“You shoot a quality round tomorrow and you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Woods said. “I’ve been in this situation before. I’ve won majors and I know how to handle it.”

Well, maybe not quite this situation. All nine of his major championship wins came when he was either tied for the lead or ahead going into the final round.

He’s never had to make up a six-shot deficit, and to win he’d have to do it against the defending Open champion.

“I’ve done this (win) in this event twice,” Woods said. “That’s huge to be able to say to yourself going down the stretch. It gives you a sense of confidence.”

If Woods doesn’t start making birdies, all the confidence in the world isn’t going to give him his third Open title. He’s preached patience all week, shooting at the center of greens, but it hasn’t translated into low scores. While Goosen made five birdies in one round Saturday, Woods has made only six all week. The pins are so nasty and the greens so severe, he’s been lagging putts out of fear they’ll roll off the greens.

“I had only two real good looks at birdie,” Woods said. “Other than that, I’m just lagging most of the putts.”

The day started badly for Woods, who couldn’t find the first fairway even while using an iron off the tee. His second shot went over the green and he chipped up and missed the putt for an opening bogey.

Woods also bogeyed the third hole, missed a short birdie putt on the 13th and hit a tree on the last hole before recovering for par.

The most revealing stats for both Woods and the golf course came on the greens. He hit 16 of them, but was often 30 to 40 feet away and needed an almost unheard of 36 putts for the round.

“Most of my shots were 20, 30 and 40 feet away because you can’t take a run at these flags,” he said. “You have a wedge in your hand and you’re firing 15 feet right or left of the hole. The golf course is so demanding that you just can’t afford to miss on that short side. You have to somehow put the ball in the center of the green and hopefully make a 20- to 30-footer.”

Pinehurst treated other big names just as badly.

The other two members of the so-called Big Five – Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els – had similar problems on the greens. Els was 12 shots back after a 72, while Mickelson’s attempt to play his way back into the tournament blew apart with a triple bogey on the easiest hole on the golf course, the par-5 fourth.

Like Woods, though, Mickelson wasn’t ready to admit defeat even after his 72 left him 11 shots off the lead.

“I’m not going to go into tomorrow’s round feeling as though I don’t have a shot,” Mickelson said. “I just feel that I can shoot a low score out there, even though I’ll have to make 30- and 40-footers to do it. I’m not going to go into the final round defeated.”

AP-ES-06-18-05 2053EDT

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