SAN FRANCISCO -- Payne Stewart hasn't turned the 98th U.S. Open at the Olympic Club into a two-flight event, as Tiger Woods did at last year's Masters and Nick Price did four years ago in the PGA Championship at Southern Hills.
But a player known more for what he wears than what he wins did his best to show there is more to him than a fancy wardrobe. While many of those in contention coming into yesterday's third round faltered on the windy fairways and rock-hard greens, Stewart managed to hold his game together.
As a result, a one-shot lead after each of the first two rounds has become four going into today's final round. Seven years after he went wire-to-wire and beat Scott Simpson in a playoff to win the Open at Hazeltine, Stewart is on the brink of a victory that will redefine, if not rejuvenate, his career.
After starting out with an eagle, two subsequent bogeys left Stewart at even-par 70 for the round and 3-under par 207 for the tournament. It also left Stewart four shots ahead of Tom Lehman and Bob Tway, five up on former Open champion Lee Janzen and Price.
"If I think I've played the first three rounds using smoke and mirrors, I'm kidding myself," said Stewart, 41. "There's no reason not to think I'm going to come out and play good golf tomorrow. If I come out and let the situation intimidate me, it's my own fault."
Some in contention going into yesterday might have been overwhelmed by the circumstances or overrun by the conditions.
Matt Kuchar, the 19-year-old U.S. Amateur champion, bogeyed five of the last eight holes to finish at 6-over 76 (5-over for the tournament). Jeff Maggert, who was in contention last year until the last three holes at Congressional, shot 5-over 75 to fall six shots behind, and tied with Steve Stricker (68).
"I didn't think I was ever in contention," said Kuchar, who started the day two shots behind and was never closer than four after Stewart's eagle. "I really didn't have any expectations to win."
Neither did Stewart, who also won the 1989 PGA Championship but will be looking for his first victory since the 1995 Houston Open. None of the four players closest to Stewart has won lately, either, but all have major championships on their resume.
Lehman, who has come agonizingly close to winning the Open the past three years, won the British Open two years ago. Tway won the 1986 PGA Championship. Janzen won the 1993 U.S. Open. Price won both the PGA and British Open in 1994.
"Five back is a tall order the way he's playing, but anything can happen on this golf course," said Price, who lost a stroke to Stewart yesterday by shooting a 1-over par 71. "Every thing depends on how Payne does. If he plays the way he's been playing, he'll be very tough to catch."
Stewart is looking to become the first wire-to-wire winner of the Open since he won at Hazeltine in 1991. The four-shot lead for Stewart is also the largest after 54 holes since Jacklin led by the same margin at Hazeltine 28 years ago.
Some of the same good fortune Stewart had at Hazeltine -- in- cluding a ball bouncing off a rock in the water and landing on the green during the playoff -- seems to be with him here.
"I would definitely draw on that experience tomorrow," Stewart said. "If I get in a situation where I'm being mentally tested, I'm a big advocate of self-motivating myself. I would tell myself, 'You've been here before. You've done this. You're a champion. There's no reason you can't be a champion tomorrow.' "
Stewart had the look -- and the luck -- of a champion yesterday. Aside from the eagle putt from 20 feet on the 533-yard par-5 first hole, Stewart seemed to be able to recover from whatever obstacles he faced.
After making a bogey on the par-4 sixth hole, he hit his tee shot on the 137-yard par-3 eighth to within two feet and made birdie.
On the ninth hole, he hit his tee shot into the right rough, but it was where the thick grass had been trampled down. His second shot was short of the green, but he chipped from 70 feet to within five feet and saved par. He also caught a good lie to the left of the 13th green and chipped to within a foot for par.
"The secret is that if you miss the fairway, miss it wide enough where you're in the gallery where they walk because it's smooth over there," joked Stewart. "You have to get some good breaks to win golf tournaments, whether it's the Open or any other golf tournament. You have to take advantage of your breaks, and that's what I'm doing."
Today, Stewart will try to take advantage of how difficult the course is playing and the fact that someone coming out of the pack to shoot a low score seems unlikely. With the combination of bright sun and cool breezes expected to continue, the Lake Course could be dry and crusty unless the USGA decides to water more than it did yesterday.
"If it plays any firmer tomorrow, it is probably going to be lucky to get the ball anywhere near the hole," said Janzen, who shot 73 after a double-bogey on the 18th hole. "I think it's just part of the U.S. Open. They're just demanding that you hit excellent shots. The guy who plays the best this week and perseveres all the elements is going to get their name on the trophy."
Janzen said another factor might come into play: who would sleep the best last night. Janzen should know, having the experience of sleeping with the lead and holding off Stewart to win at Baltusrol, then losing a three-shot lead this year and shooting 79 in the final round at the Tournament Players Championship.
"Leading the tournament is a lot better than chasing the guy," said Janzen. "But I think the rest of us will have a better night's sleep than he will."
Stewart has tried to limit his distractions here, leaving his wife and two children home and bringing only his mother, Bee, to place where his late father Bill shot 83 and 88 to miss the cut at the 1955 Open made famous by Jack Fleck's playoff victory over the legendary Ben Hogan.
When the comments of close friend Janzen were relayed to him, Stewart chuckled.
"How does he know how I'm going to sleep?" Stewart said. "As long as my mother doesn't snore, I'll be all right."
Payne Stewart 70-207
... and the followers
Tom Lehman 68-211
Bob Tway 73-211
Nick Price 71-212
Lee Janzen 73-212
Jeff Maggert 75-213
Jim Furyk 68-215
a-Matt Kuchar 76-215
Tiger Woods 71-217
Casey Martin 74-219
Jack Nicklaus 73-220
Complete scores: (Page 10F)
Start-to-finish winners in U.S. Open:
Willie Anderson 1903
Alex Smith 1906
Chick Evans 1916
Tommy Bolt 1958
Jack Nicklaus 1972, 1980
Hubert Green 1977
Payne Stewart 1991
Cards of the leaders after the third round of the U.S. Open, played on the 6,797-yard, par-70 Lake Course at the Olympic Club:
Par out ........ 543 .. 444 .. 434 ... 35
Payne Stewart .. 344 .. 444 .. 425 .. -34
Tom Lehman ..... 432 .. 555 .. 434 .. -35
Bob Tway ....... 533 .. 444 .. 536 .. -37
Nick Price ..... 444 .. 534 .. 433 .. -34
Lee Janzen ..... 643 .. 454 .. 435 .. -38
Par in ... 444 .. 343 .. 544 .. 35 .. -70
Stewart .. 444 .. 344 .. 544 .. 36 ... 70 -207
Lehman ... 444 .. 333 .. 543 .. 33 ... 68 -211
Tway ..... 444 .. 443 .. 553 .. 36 ... 73 -211
Price .... 454 .. 443 .. 544 .. 37 ... 71 -212
Janzen ... 343 .. 352 .. 564 .. 35 ... 73 -212
Pub Date: 6/21/98