Gil Morgan became the first player in U.S. Open history to go 10 under par when he made a birdie on the third hole Saturday at Pebble Beach.
After the seventh hole, he was 12 under par and had a seven-stroke lead over his nearest pursuer, playing partner Andy Dillard, and it seemed that his ultimate victory was only a formality.
A few hours later, Morgan was in the interview room, saying with gallows humor: "All bow your heads. I feel pretty bad myself."
Morgan is still the leader of the U.S. Open, but a decidedly shaky one. The field has closed in on the non-practicing optometrist from Edmond, Okla.
His comfortable lead evaporated after the seventh hole as he went nine over par for the next seven holes. He managed to stop the bleeding, though, by getting birdies on the 16th and 18th holes around a bogey at No. 17.
So even though Morgan shot a five-over-par 77, 212 for 54 holes, he remains the leader--by one shot over Tom Kite, Mark Brooks and Ian Woosnam. Nick Faldo, Gary Hallberg, and Joey Sindelar are two strokes behind Morgan.
"It was a long day and I'm glad it's over," Morgan said. "It was kind of a dumb round. It was pretty embarrassing at times."
Morgan couldn't quite identify what went wrong.
"The pressure of being that far out front may have kept me uneasy," he said. "Maybe I was too relaxed. It seemed to drift away. I really don't understand that myself."
In any event, what seemed to be a ho-hum Open with a wire-to-wire winner has turned into a competitive tournament heading into today's final round.
It could have been worse for Morgan, 45, if he hadn't rallied on two of the last three holes.
He broke what would have been a four-way tie for the lead with a 35-foot birdie putt on the 18th green.
"The eighth, ninth and 10th holes were terrible holes for me," said Morgan, where he went double bogey, bogey and double bogey.
Morgan said that the five-foot putt he made to save par on the 15th hole was "crucial" to him.
"I think if I didn't make that putt, I was losing it to the world," he said.
Tony Jacklin was the last player to lead all four rounds of the U.S. Open. That occurred in 1970 at the Hazeltine course in Minnesota.
Morgan somehow kept a positive outlook, saying: "I've played better than anyone else for three rounds."
Morgan said that he hit only two bad shots all day, saying the others were errors of judgment.
He identified his bad shots as a five-iron he hit into a hazard on the par-four 10th hole, causing him to take a drop, and a wedge shot at No. 14 that he hit into the grass short of a bunker.
Woosnam, the 1991 Masters champion, who shot a 69, said the pressure of leading an Open might have caught up with Morgan.
"I felt the pressure was going to be on him being so far ahead, and he might get into a situation where he was trying to play a bit negative," Woosnam said. "He may have realized how far he was in front and played a bit safe, and it caught up with him."
Andy Dillard, who started the third round only three shots behind Morgan, also faltered. He shot a 79 and, at 217, is five strokes behind Morgan.
Kite, who was playing ahead of Morgan, said that he never glanced at the leader board.
"I don't have any control over Gil, or anybody else," Kite said. "Even though he was lighting it up, I was pleased with the way I was playing. I was amazed, though, at what Gil was doing."
Kite shot a 70 and the all-time leading money-winner on the tour is on the verge of possibly winning his first major tournament.
He lost an opportunity in 1989 to become an Open champion at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., when he lost a four-stroke lead early in the last round. Curtis Strange went on to win his second consecutive Open.
Asked about not winning previous Opens, Kite said: "I prefer not to comment. I think the thing I need to do is to dwell on the positive and not the negative."
Reporters persisted, though, asking the 42-year-old Kite what it would mean to him to win a major championship.
"I'm pleased with Tom Kite and I'm pleased with the career I've had," he said. "Everyone seems to think that if I don't have one of those so-called four (major) tournaments that I'm going to become suicidal.
"And I'll be trying to do my darndest to win. If I get close and don't win it, then, yes, I'll be disappointed. But I'll come back."
Kite said the wind was a factor Saturday. "It was previously blowing out toward the ocean and today it did a 180 (degree) on us," he said. "It turned back into our face on all those inward holes and made it very difficult."
Brooks, who has won three tournaments during a career that began in 1983, was regarded at the outset of the Open as having an outside chance of winning. He is a steady player, and was steady again Saturday with a 69.
"I was trying to take care of my own business," he said. "I wasn't hoping any bad things for Gil, but I guess I was hoping he would have a semi-bogey string. Even when he was 12 under, I thought that if anyone was four or five under, they would be in striking range."
A European hasn't won the U.S. Open since Jacklin in 1970. Now Faldo, a former two-time Masters champion, is in striking position. So is Woosnam, a Welshman.
Faldo shot a 68 and didn't seem any worse for wear for climbing a tree to look for his ball Friday at the 14th hole.
Even when Morgan was 12 under par and Faldo had already finished, the British player said: "Maybe it's not over. Who knows?"
Hallberg, who hasn't won on the tour since 1987, stayed in contention with a one-over-par 73.
"When Gil started going backward, it was a real momentum builder," he said. "It kind of gives you a shot in the arm."
Morgan coming back to the field sets up a scramble for the championship today. There has been an Open playoff on Monday three of the past four years, and with a bunched field there is a possibility of another one.
"Hopefully, this is my bad round of the tournament," Morgan said.
Fred Couples, the Masters champion, faltered Saturday with a 78 and is at 220 for 54 holes. . . . Scott Simpson, who won the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco in 1987, shot a 68 and is only three strokes behind Morgan at 215. So is Payne Stewart (72), who won the Open championship last year in a playoff with Simpson at Hazeltine. . . . Craig Stadler, 1982 Masters champion, is also at 215.
* ANDY DILLARD
The 30-year-old journeyman's chances to win are slim after shooting a 79 Saturday, but he is happy to be in the field after struggling for years. C10
* JACK NICKLAUS
Winless on the tour since his victory, at 46, in the '86 Masters, the feeling persists that he would like to win one more major tournament before he devotes all his time to business interests. C11