Lehman torrid but uneasy in British lead He sets 54-hole record, but patient Faldo eyes another six-stroke rally


LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- An eerie sort of golf symmetry descended on the Lancashire coast yesterday and covered the British Open. Senior golfers acted their age, obscure major pretenders drifted out to the Irish Sea and the major players positioned themselves for either a Masters reprise or a Grand Slam blowout.

Tom Lehman, who held the third-round lead in the 1994 Masters, shared it in the 1995 U.S. Open and held it just a month ago in the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, is back there again.

Lehman set a course record at Royal Lytham and St. Annes yesterday with a 64 (he tied the Oakland Hills record of 65 one month ago yesterday) and set a British Open record for 54 holes at 198, 15-under par. That's the symmetry. Here's the eerie: The six-stroke lead is over Nick Faldo, noted intimidator, who came from precisely that far back this spring at the Masters to beat Greg Norman.

On yet another spectacularly sunny day in northwest England, Faldo, who shot his third consecutive 68, even pulled off a reprise of the 17th-hole birdie, just as he did at Augusta, to get himself into the final group with Lehman, who, incidentally, won none of the three previous majors he led.

"That was important, yeah, to get into the last group," Faldo said. "If you're going to make anything happen, that's where it has to be from."

The only things missing from this picture are Jack Nicklaus -- who started the day just one stroke behind and ballooned to a 77 that left him at 212 -- and, of course, Norman himself, who is 12 strokes behind at 210.

Lehman is in what should be an extremely comfortable position, with the biggest lead he has ever had in a tournament, but there is this certain square-jawed specter named Faldo in the rearview mirror. Is there a chance, could it possibly . . .?

"You mean, could lightning strike twice?" Lehman said, laughing. He seemed amused by the question. It was not as though he had not thought about it. Ever since Norman's final-round 78 at Augusta ran headlong into Faldo's 67, any golfer who has had a big lead has been asked the same thing.

"It's a different place," Lehman said. "It's a different time. I feel like I'm playing very well. I like my situation. I would certainly rather be six strokes ahead than six strokes behind."

Why shouldn't he? Lehman, 37, tore into the old links yesterday like a seasoned British Open veteran. This is only his third trip across for the British, but he was hitting all the shots and, most important for him, making all the putts. Putting always has been the suspect area of his game, but yesterday he was doing a Ben Crenshaw on the greens.

"All I saw was that little 35-footer he brushed in at the 16th," Faldo said. "Obviously he played well. He did all the things you have to do to get in the position he's in."

Nicklaus was mortal again, reverting to the role of elder statesman with a 6-over 77 that took him out of contention after three rounds of the 125th British Open.

"I wanted it to be my day," said Nicklaus. "I felt good this morning, my body felt good . . . I warmed up beautifully . . . I wasn't nervous, not any more than what you would normally want to be."

For those interested in age records, a victory in the British Open would have made Nicklaus by far the oldest man to ever win a major. The honor now belongs to Julius Boros, who took the 1968 PGA at 48. But Nicklaus couldn't escape his third-round bugaboo.

His 77 marked the 11th time since the 1986 Masters that he has shot 76 or higher in the third round of a major. He wrote off some it to bad luck.

"I hit very nice tee shots on the first three holes and made bogeys on two of them -- and got in the rough on two," he said. "Each time I hit it on one of those holes, I got myself in a place where I couldn't do anything with it. I got myself behind and I just never could catch up."

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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