Golf / US PGA Championship: Price holds field at bay

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WHEN Dave Stockton won the US PGA Championship at Southern Hills in 1970, his aggregate was 279, one under par. When Ray Floyd won here in 1982 his total was 272, eight under. Nick Price had got to that level after two rounds to lead the field by five strokes but yesterday he had a fight on his hands as the heat and the pressure took its toll. Price remained on eight under following a 70 and today he takes a three-stroke lead into the final round.

Should Price win the 76th US PGA Championship, it would mean that Americans had failed, for the first time, to hold any of the four major titles. In the third round, Price was paired with Corey Pavin, one of three Americans who began the day at three under par. Pavin may not be the longest hitter in professional golf but he is pretty handy with the putter. He began by missing the green at the first hole when his chip was six feet short. He rolled in the putt to save par and at the second hole he sank a putt from around 40 feet for a birdie three.

That put him at four under par for the championship, four behind Price, who began with a string of pars. Pavin narrowed the gap to three strokes when he got down from 20ft for a birdie four at the long fifth. When Price, who missed a birdie putt of 12ft at the first, hit his approach shot into a bunker at the fourth, he played an exquisite shot to a foot from the flag.

Phil Mickelson, the precocious Californian who is regarded by many on this side of the Atlantic as the great white hope, joined Pavin and Jay Haas in pursuit of Price. Mickelson, a left hander, went to the turn in 31, four under for the round, five under for the championship. Mickelson, who won the Tournament of Champions this year and then broke his leg skiing, birdied the first, the fourth, the sixth and the eighth. John Cook also made headway, picking up two birdies to go to four under.

Pavin went to the turn in 32; Price, following nine successive pars, in 35. As they headed for home, both players felt the heat, towelling themselves down on another oppressive day. Although Price was showing signs of vulnerability, Pavin was the first to throw in the towel, closely followed by Haas. Price, who saved par after being bunkered at the 11th, was in dreadful trouble on the 12th. He drove right near the base of a tree then he hit it way left into the crowd and was fortunate to get a view of the green. His chip was too strong and a five was the best he could have hoped for. It was his first bogey since the ninth hole on Thursday.

However, Pavin failedto take advantage, missing from five feet and he too dropped a stroke: Price seven under, Pavin five. At the 13th, they were both in trouble. Pavin hit his second to within inches of the creek on the right and after putting his right foot in the water he played a deft chip. Although he saved par, the 13th, a par five, is the easiest hole on the course. Price again got up and down from a bunker for a four.

Haas, who had got to six under, was in dire straits at the 15th. Faced with a downhill shot out of a bunker he duffed it and then duffed a chip shot. He took five strokes to get down and chalked up a triple-bogey seven. Haas, playing in his 16th US PGA, does not seem able to compile a round without a mini- disaster. He had a seven at the ninth in the second round. Yesterday Haas responded with birdies at the 16th and 17th and at five under par was three strokes off the lead.

Meanwhile, Pavin hit a wretched tee shot at the 14th and compounded that by pitching into a bunker. The result was a double-bogey five and he plummeted to three under. Price dropped a stroke at the 15th - three putts - and when he found his sixth bunker of the day at the 16th he once again got up and down.

Prior to 1992 Price went eight years without a victory of any kind but since then he has won nearly dollars 6m from 15 wins.

Two years ago, he won the US PGA in St Louis - Nick Faldo was joint second - for his first major title and, of course, he added the Open Championship at Turnberry to his cv last month. On that occasion he benefited from a somewhat fortunate 50ft putt for an eagle at the penultimate hole and also from the tactical naivety of Jesper Parnevik at the ultimate hole.

Here, Price has spreadeagled the field with his impressive shot-making and one of the reasons for his reformation is that nobody, apart from John Daly, has been getting more distance on the driver. Price's average driving distance here has been 303 yards. Pavin's average is 275 yards and that gives Price a considerable advantage. He was not completely satisfied with his swing at Turnberry and has been working on it with David Leadbetter.

The halfway cut had been made at five over par and Sandy Lyle was one of 12 players tied on 145, extending the weekend field to 76. Lyle did not take advantage of the reprieve. He shot 76 in the third round to stand at 11 over par for the championship. 'It was pretty crappy,' Lyle, the 1988 Masters champion, said. 'I haven't got a clue.' His game appears to have disintegrated at all levels. He did not have the confidence to use his driver at all in this tournament. At the short 14th, he shanked a five-iron off the tee and his ball flew straight right into the trees. A shank for a professional golfer is the ultimate embarrassment. On top of that, Lyle has resorted to using the long, pendulum putter, a sure sign of premature senility.

(Photograph omitted)