PINEHURST N.C. — PINEHURST N.C.-- Years from now, perhaps when the U.S. Open returns to Pinehurst No. 2, they will talk about what happened this week in the same way they talk about what happened at Winged Foot a quarter-century ago.
With one significant difference: the players will speak of reverence for this hallowed course rather than revile the way the USGA tricked up Winged Foot back when Hale Irwin won at 7-over par.
They also might recall something else -- the first major championship for Phil Mickelson or David Duval, the first Open championship for Tiger Woods, or redemption for Payne Stewart.
Just as he did last year at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Stewart will take the lead into today's final round of the 99th Open. Instead of leading by four strokes, Stewart is one shot ahead.
A birdie on the final hole last night gave Stewart a 2-over par 72 and a 54-hole total of 1-under par 209, leaving the 42-year-old former Open champion as the only player below par in the field.
"As I've said before, I could have disappeared after last year," said Stewart, who wound up losing by a shot to Lee Janzen after a final-round 74. "I've worked very hard to get back into this position. I'm patting myself on the back."
Mickelson, 29, also birdied the par-4 18th hole to stop a stretch of three straight bogeys, finishing a round of 3-over par 73 to drop one stroke behind. Woods recovered from a disastrous start to shoot 2-over 72.
At 1-over 211, Woods is tied with Tim Herron.
"I love feeling the pressure," said Woods, 23, who is looking for his third victory in as many starts and his first major since winning the Masters two years ago. "If you don't like the feeling you shouldn't play." Seemingly on the verge of losing sight of the leaders, Woods held together while many ahead of him fell apart.
David Duval, who was tied with Stewart and Mickelson going into the round, shot 5-over par 75.
At 2-over 212, Duval is tied with reigning PGA champion Vijay Singh, who finished with a 3-over 73 yesterday, and Steve Stricker, the only player in the field to shoot under-par yesterday. Stricker shot 69.
Duval, 27, also appeared to be in desperate trouble early in the round. He played the first eight holes in 5-over, including a double-bogey on the par-4 fifth. But he parred the last 11 holes to stop the bleeding.
"I knew everyone was going to struggle," said Duval. "I'm just happy to be where I am. I look forward to tomorrow. Everyone is going to back up. Whoever backs up the least is probably going to win."
A confluence of circumstances, some planned and others not, made for the high scores. The fast greens were double-cut Saturday night and remowed early yesterday morning. A steady rain and swirling winds increased the difficulty.
"It was a tough day," said Woods. It started out disastrously for Woods. He pulled his first drive into the left rough and later skulled a difficult pitch before missing a 15-footer for bogey. He also bogeyed the par-4 second hole.
"If I start out like that at a regular tournament, I lose five shots," said Woods. "Everyone is going to do that at a U.S. Open. It depends on when you do that. Hopefully I got it behind me."
Woods wound up playing the last 15 holes in 1-under par. He made a 6-foot birdie putt on the par-5 fourth hole, saved par on the par-3 sixth. It was perhaps the hole that kept Woods in contention.
Going for the pin in the front left part of the green, Woods watched as his tee shot fell into a bunker. Without much sand under his ball, or much confidence, Woods came out too strong. The ball hit the flag, and stopped 6 feet away.
"A good break," said Woods.
As those above him on the scoreboard began to tumble, Woods kept making pars. He saved another par on the 447-yard 12th hole after driving into a fairway bunker. After a bogey at 14, Woods made a 4-footer for birdie on the par-3 15th.
Woods thought he had another birdie on the par-4 16th, the toughest hole on the course, but a 15-foot putt made an unexpected right turn past the cup. He then saved par from off the green on the par-3 17th as well.
"I wanted to finish at even-par, but after starting 2-over right away I'll take it," he said.
So will Stewart. After playing the steadiest of those in the final two groups through the first seven holes and remaining at even-par for the day, Stewart bogeyed three straight holes beginning on the par-4 eight.
Then, after making seven straight pars while playing with Duval, Stewart put his 7-iron approach on the 446-yard 18th hole 15 feet from the cup. When he made the putt, Stewart had only one word on his mind:
"I said to myself, `Finally.' "
That might be the catch phrase coming out of today's final round. For Woods, it would mean finally backing up his victory at Augusta. For Duval and Mickelson, it would mean finally winning their first major.
"If this is my worst round, and I can improve on it, then I will be in good shape," said Mickelson, 29, looking to become the first left-hander to win a major since Bob Charles won the British Open in 1963.
And, for Stewart, it would mean finally putting some closure on last year's disappointment at Olympic.
"Since we don't play defense, I've got to go and do a lot of things I've been doing all week," said Stewart. "Who knows what's going to happen. If the wind lays down, there could be a Lee Janzen's 67 or 68 on somebody that doesn't have the pressure I have."
Pub Date: 6/20/99