PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- Gil Morgan took his place yesterday in the lore of the U.S. Open. Actually, he nearly took two spots in the record book.
The first came when Morgan, who started the third round at Pebble Beach with a three-shot lead at 9-under par, became the first player in Open history to reach 10-under.
Then, after getting to an astounding 12-under through seven holes and building an amazing seven-shot lead, Morgan began an equally historic collapse.
By the time it was finished, Morgan had surrendered nine shots to par and his entire lead to the field. Only two long birdie putts on 16 and 18 -- sandwiched around another bogey -- saved him from utter disaster.
The 30-foot birdie at 18 gave Morgan something to take into today's final round aside from a one-shot lead over Ian Woosnam, Tom Kite and Mark Brooks. It might have helped restore the confidence he needs to win the 92nd Open.
"The pressure of being that far in front may have kept me uneasy," said Morgan, who was at 4-under-par 212 after a round of 5-over 77. "I don't know what happened out there. Maybe it was the pressure of the U.S. Open."
Or maybe it was Pebble Beach finally showing its formidable bite. When the wind kicked up off the Pacific yesterday for the first time all week, it blew scores into the black and nearly blew Morgan into oblivion.
While Morgan barely kept his lead, he brought many back into the hunt. Among the 21 players within four shots of the lead are: two-time British Open champion Nick Faldo at 2-under par; defending champion Payne Stewart and 1987 champion Scott Simpson at 1-under, and 1986 champion Ray Floyd and Seve Ballesteros, who has won five majors but never the Open, at even par.
"Anybody from level par up can still win this tournament quite easily," said Woosnam, the former Masters champion who nTC climbed back into contention with a 3-under-par 69. "Maybe even someone at 1-over par."
"As long as you're not on a plane home, you have a chance," said Faldo, who shot 68 yesterday and is tied with Joey Sindelar (68) and Gary Hallberg (73).
Until Morgan's birdies at 16 and 18 -- he bogeyed 17 to briefly fall into a tie for the lead -- he might have wished to get on a plane back to Oklahoma last night. Or maybe just crawl into a hole.
In a span of seven holes -- which, in his defense, included the toughest stretch at Pebble Beach beginning at No. 8 -- Morgan went from dominant to dormant. His history-making 25-footer for birdie at No. 3 that put him 10-under was long forgotten.
It appeared that he would run away from the field when he birdied Nos. 6 and 7 to reach 12-under. The last 30 holes seemed only a formality before Morgan, 45, would become the oldest champion in Open history.
"The first part was kind of exciting," said Morgan, who is also trying to win the first major title of his 20-year PGA Tour career and is looking for his first victory since the 1990 Kemper Open. "I kind of fell out of the sky. My parachute had a hole in it."
Morgan's free-fall did not shock his fellow pros. It's not because Morgan has never won a major, or because he lost the lead after the second round of the 1976 PGA at Congressional. It's that everyone has gone through what Morgan experienced yesterday.
"I felt the pressure was going to be on Gil Morgan," Woosnam said. "At one time it looked like we were playing for second place. He got ahead of himself. Maybe he was thinking of a [victory] speech."
Said Kite, whose collapse in the final round of the 1989 Open at Oak Hill has been well-documented: "He was lighting it up for a while. It was amazing what Gil was doing. You had to admire and wonder."
Even when Morgan double-bogeyed No. 8 after hitting his approach into a back bunker, it didn't look like he would blow his lead. Andy Dillard, the 30-year folk hero of this year's Open, had gone from 6-under at the start to 4-under and was quickly fading.
Even when Morgan bogeyed No. 9 after finding another green-side bunker, nobody gave it much thought. But when Morgan hit his approach into heavy rough over the 10th green, lost his ball and a stroke to wind up with another double-bogey, there was a different kind of history lesson in the works.
As Morgan faded to 6-under with a bogey at 11, to 5-under with a bogey at 12 and to 3-under with another double-bogey at 14, the record books were about to be reopened.
It hadn't been since Arnold Palmer lost a seven-shot lead to Billy Casper on the final nine holes of the 1966 Open at Olympic -- then lost in a playoff -- had an Open leader unraveled so badly.
"Going up to 13, I said to Gil, 'This course is tough, but not that tough,' " said Dillard, who finished at 1-over 217 after a 79. "I told him, 'Surely we can do better than this.' I felt bad for Gil. I hope I didn't cause him to play bad."
Said Morgan: "That certainly was a disaster. I felt pretty bad about it. I think everybody [the players] liked it. It was pretty embarrassing out there."
It wasn't until Morgan ran in a 30-footer at No. 16 that he seemed capable of making a putt. Then came another bogey at 17. Tied for the lead, Morgan had another long putt on the par-5 18th for birdie.
When he rolled the putt in, the huge crowd surrounding the green roared. Morgan waved his hand, picked up his ball, and breathed a huge sigh of relief. He would take only one spot in the record books after all, as well as a one-shot lead into the final round.
G; "It was a long day," he said. "I was glad it was over."
The leader . . .
Gil Morgan .. .. 66-69-77212 . . . and selected followers
Ian Woosnam . .. .. 72-72-69213 Mark Brooks . .. .. 70-74-69213 Tom Kite . .. .. .. 71-72-70213
Nick Faldo .. .. .. 70-76-68214 Payne Stewart .. .. 73-70-72215 Paul Azinger ... .. 70-75-71216 Raymond Floyd .. .. 71-69-76216 John Cook ... .. .. 72-72-74218 Fred Couples ... .. 72-70-78220