PINEHURST, N.C. - By late yesterday afternoon at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, the field at the 105th U.S. Open had been reduced to the men in black. There was not a single player in the red, or under par, and the chances of that happening seemed as unlikely as a Nationwide Tour grinder named Jason Gore being in the lead.
Gore's lead was brief, erased by a double bogey on the par-4 14th hole. It was there a few minutes later that defending champion Retief Goosen reclaimed his turf, making the first of three birdies on the last five holes and narrowly missing the fourth. Not only was Goosen in the red, but he also was in control of the tournament.
The final birdie - a 21-footer that Goosen putted in from the fringe on the par-4 18th - gave the 36-year-old South African a 1-under-par 69 and a three-round total of 3-under 207, three strokes ahead of Gore and Olin Browne. Michael Campbell of New Zealand and Mark Hensby of Australia are four behind.
"It's not easy to make up ground, but it's easy to lose ground," said Goosen, who lost the lead briefly when he double-bogeyed the par-4 13th hole but still managed to finish at 1-under. "If I shoot 1- or 2-over, I should probably win. There's still probably a good 10 guys that still have a shot now; it really all depends on what I do tomorrow."
This is familiar territory for Goosen. In his two previous U.S. Open victories, last year at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island and in 2001 at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla., where he won in an 18-hole playoff over Mark Brooks, Goosen led going into the final round. Another victory would put Goosen in select company.
If he holds on, Goosen would join Jack Nicklaus and Hale Irwin as the only players in modern history to have won this major championship at least three times. Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones and Willie Anderson also have done it, with only Hogan and Anderson having won as many in a shorter span.
"Obviously it would be great to win this event back-to-back," said Goosen, who would become the first to do that since Curtis Strange in 1988 and 1989. "You know, that's a long way still, and I'm going to have to wait another 24 hours to see what happens. But I don't want to think about it yet. We know it's going to be tough out there to stay with it."
It seems as if this is Goosen's tournament to lose, given the lack of major championship credentials on the leader board. Former PGA champion David Toms is the only major winner within five strokes of the lead. Two-time Open champion Tiger Woods is in a group of four players that is six strokes behind. Former Masters and PGA champion Vijay Singh is seven back.
"You just go out there and grind away and try and make a bunch of pars and hopefully you can sprinkle in a couple of birdies here and there," said Woods, who made only one birdie yesterday in a round of 72. "As we all know, even par, maybe over par, will win this tournament. If you can post even par, you're looking pretty good."
After three-putting for bogey on the opening hole, Gore trailed Goosen by two strokes before catching up. Gore was later as many as three strokes behind before finishing the round with an exclamation point - and an expletive to his caddie - when he made an 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole and pointed at it as the ball went in.
"I went over to my caddie and I said, 'Did I just point at that thing?'" Gore recalled later. 'He said, 'Yeah, you did.' I said, 'Gosh I'm a cheese ball.' I'm not really a fist-pumper."
Or a front-runner. A player who has had only moderate success as a professional after leading Pepperdine to the NCAA championship in 1997, Gore last won on the Nationwide Tour in the 2002 Boise Open. He has failed twice on the PGA Tour.
Browne, 46, hasn't won since Colonial in 1999 and has finished no higher than a tie for fifth in the U.S. Open, at Congressional in 1997.
But they have a healthy amount of respect for Goosen, and Pinehurst No. 2.
"Retief is a world-class player. He's an incredible player. He's cold as ice," said Gore, 31, who is ranked 818th in the world and will be paired with fifth-ranked Goosen in the final group that undoubtedly will be an interesting contrast with his own emotional style and his rotund appearance. "There's a lot of guys that don't have much to lose, including me. Whatever happens tomorrow, I'll learn something."
Said Browne, who overcame his own shaky start yesterday to finish with birdies on two of the last four holes: "I don't think it matters who has the lead, because if you're worried about somebody else, you're going to go down the drain in a heartbeat. This golf course is all you want. It's probably like facing Mike Tyson when he was 20 years old."
Goosen is pretty formidable himself, especially in the Open. But given what happened yesterday, when he admitted to being a bit too relaxed during the middle of the round because of his recent success in this tournament, Goosen will not be going into today's round with any kind of swagger.
"You know, if it was 12 shots, I probably would feel a little bit more comfortable," Goosen said. "It's going to be a hard day out there tomorrow. The flags are going to be tucked in the most difficult positions on every hole, so I've just got to go out there and just try to play for pars on every hole, avoid mistakes like I made today."
The chance is pretty good that Goosen will do that, and win another Open. Remember what happened last year at Shinnecock Hills on the final day, when it was also a case of a field turning into the men in black? Only two players finished in the red, under par, for the tournament.
Do you want to venture a guess who was on top?
The third-round leader
... Retief Goosen 68-70-69-207
... and selected followers
Jason Gore 71-67-72-210
Olin Browne 67-71-72-210
Michael Campbell 71-69-71-211
Mark Hensby 71-68-72-211
David Toms 70-72-70-212
Tiger Woods 70-71-72-213
Vijay Singh 70-70-74-214
Complete scores, 13E
Today's tee times
8:10 a.m. -- Chris Nallen
8:20 a.m. -- Frank Lickliter II, Bob Tway
8:30 a.m. -- Jerry Kelly, J.L. Lewis
8:40 a.m. -- John Daly, Craig Barlow
8:50 a.m. -- a-Ryan Moore, Omar Uresti
9 a.m. -- Steve Elkington, Richard Green
9:10 a.m. -- Soren Kjeldsen, Michael Allen
9:20 a.m. -- Stephen Ames, Rory Sabbatini
9:30 a.m. -- J.J. Henry, Mike Weir
9:40 p.m. -- Jeff Maggert, D.J. Brigman
9:50 a.m. -- Lee Janzen, J.P. Hayes
10 a.m. -- Tommy Armour III, Steve Flesch
10:10 a.m. -- Nick O'Hern, Jonathan Lomas
10:20 a.m. -- Thomas Levet, a-Matt Every
10:30 a.m. -- Brandt Jobe, Fred Funk
10:40 a.m. -- Thomas Bjorn, Nick Dougherty
10:50 a.m. -- Ian Poulter, Stewart Cink
11 a.m. -- Tom Pernice, Chad Campbell
11:10 a.m. -- Graeme McDowell, Fred Couples
11:20 a.m. -- Peter Lonard, Rob Rashell
11:30 a.m. -- John Mallinger, Colin Montgomerie
11:40 a.m. -- Ernie Els, Paul McGinley
11:50 a.m. -- Bob Estes, Charles Howell
12 p.m. -- Ryuji Imada, Phil Mickelson
12:10 p.m. -- Bill Glasson, Bernhard Langer
12:20 p.m. -- Steve Jones, Angel Cabrera
12:30 p.m. -- Ted Purdy, Shigeki Maruyama
12:40 p.m. -- Geoff Ogilvy, Tim Herron
12:50 p.m. -- Davis Love III, Justin Leonard
1 p.m. -- John Cook, Jim Furyk
1:10 p.m. -- Keiichiro Fukabori, Luke Donald
1:20 p.m. -- Paul Claxton, Kenny Perry
1:40 p.m. -- Rocco Mediate, Nick Price
1:50 p.m. -- Corey Pavin, Tim Clark
2 p.m. -- Vijay Singh, Steve Allan
2:10 p.m. -- Arron Oberholser, Peter Jacobsen
2:30 p.m. -- Tiger Woods, Peter Hedblom
2:40 p.m. -- David Toms, Mark Hensby
2:50 p.m. -- Michael Campbell, Olin Browne
3 p.m. -- Retief Goosen, Jason Gore