Seven men started the third round of the 99th US Open under par, only one remained at day's end. Payne Stewart had that honour, after a 72, to be one under thanks to a birdie at the last. It put him one ahead of Phil Mickelson, even par after a 73, and two ahead of Tiger Woods, 72, and Tim Herron.
Affectionately known as "Lumpy", Herron had a level-par 70. The only sub-par round of the day was Steve Stricker's 69. Stricker holed a long birdie putt at the second, then a fairway bunker shot for an eagle at the next and rode that momentum for the remaining 15 holes.
For everyone else, par was in the region of 75. Stricker ended at two over and then waited as the leaders came back to him. David Duval, after a 75, and Vijay Singh, 73, were also two over.
Mickelson, whose wife Amy is expecting their first child within a fortnight, grew up with a green, bunker and chipping area in his parents' backyard. No one has more than his 13 wins on the US tour without one of them being in a major. His short game has to make up for his sometimes erratic driving and, for much of the afternoon, he made an unlikely leader of a US Open. Finally, he seemed to crack, dropping three shots in a row from the 15th before, like Stewart, he birdied the last.
Stewart has taken over from Curtis Strange as the consummate US Open player. He was the champion at Hazeltine in 1991 and has twice been a runner-up, including last year to Lee Janzen at Olympic.
Stewart had his own run of three consecutive bogeys around the turn but then played the last eight holes in one under. Woods was hoping to have 36 pars over the weekend, but that hope was quickly destroyed when he double bogeyed the first and dropped another shot at the next. However, he birdied the par-five fourth and played the rest of the course in level par. Duval, the world number one who won the Players' Championship in similarly testing conditions earlier this year, had an even worse collapse when he dropped five strokes in his first eight holes. He showed he is not out of it, however, by parring in from the ninth.
The tally of seven Europeans who made the cut, from a starting line-up of 16, exactly matched the number of Europeans in the top 50 of the world rankings. While Bernhard Langer was not exempt, Jose Maria Olazabal made a dramatic self-inflicted exit with a right uppercut on his hotel room wall and Lee Westwood failed to end his current wayward spell. So it is an accurate reflection of their status that Jesper Parnevik, Darren Clarke, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Colin Montgomerie should lead the way.
Despite their scores, their positions improved. Jimenez, inspired by playing alongside Stricker, birdied the fourth and the fifth, and recovered from a run of five bogeys in seven holes to birdie the last. His 72 left him five over but in 10th place, while Clarke had a 74 to be two worse off. The score did not reflect the way the Irishman played. "The best I can ever remember, fantastic," Clarke said. "It should not have been worse than par. It is really disappointing because I hit every shot where I wanted it to go." The only exception was his wedge approach at the 13th which caught a gust of wind and plugged in a bunker. He came out to 40 feet and three-putted for a six.
Montgomerie conceded his dream of winning the US Open was over for another year after a third-round 74 left him eight over. "There can only be one winner out of 156 each week and it's not going to be me this week," said the Scot. "I have not done a lot wrong. I have had 16 bogeys and eight birdies. That's not a disaster, it's just not quite what I was hoping for. I have worked hard and a 74 today was a good effort. It is very, very hard out there, as hard as you would ever want it. I look forward to this tournament every year but this is borderline on the old toughness bit.
"Medinah [for the US PGA] may be set up better for me and I'm looking forward to there and Carnoustie." When informed that the US Open may return to Pinehurst in 2004, Monty added: "I'll be 41 by then, I might have retired."
Montgomerie had only one birdie chance, he reckoned, from 10 feet at the 14th. "But I got tentative on it. We are all playing defensive golf. Even when you are chipping, you have to play away from the hole and two- putt."
Phillip Price, who scored a third-round 75, was coping well with the conditions yesterday until a triple-bogey seven at the eighth, the hole playing the hardest on the day. "I hit a three-iron and it looked brilliant," Price said. "But it rolled over the back of the green. My chip came back to me, then a putt came back to me, then I putted on and two putted.I was flattened. It was a chore to finish but I was glad I did not let it slip. I played a shot worthy of being stiff and took seven. If you land the ball just in the wrong place you get punished."
The punishee of the day, however, was Bob Burns, from Knoxville, Tennessee. He started with no fewer than eight straight bogeys on his way to an 84 and a championship tally of 21 over par. Many more scores like this and counselling will be needed.