Jim Thorpe had the best seat in the house to watch Bruce Lietzke and Tom Watson battle it out in the third round of the Tucson Open Golf Tournament today.

He was the other golfer in the threesome.

But after his performance, the long-hitting Falls Church, Va., resident may draw some attention on his own merit. Thorpe birdied the final hole for a three-under-par 67 that put him in a three-way tie for second, two strokes behind Lietzke.

Despite bogeys on the final two holes, Lietzke retained the lead in the $250,000 PGA tournament. His two-under-par 68 put him at 197, 13 under after three trips around the short 6,708-yard Randolph Municipal Course layout.

Watson, the defending champion, fired his second straight 66 to move into the second-place tie with Thorpe and Marty Fleckman at 199.

Thorpe, whose brother Chuck is a former touring pro, was a 212-pound football running back at Morgan State College before quitting after two years to concentrate on golf. He is taking his second crack at the pro tour. He played during the 1976 season but lost his tour card after failing to earn enough money.

He returned to the PGA qualifying school last fall and was comedalist. It appears he will have no problem keeping the card this year since he has made the cut in four straight tournaments and has earned more than $5,000, not counting the sizable check he is likely to bank this week.

"Starting out as a rookie again, people tell me it will take time," said Thorpe, one of the few black players on the tour. "But I think I can win. If I don't have confidence in myself, no one else will."

Thorpe has enjoyed success this week because of his booming drives. He has driven some of the shorter par 4s and been pin high on others.

"I'm not one of the shorter hitters," he admitted after he rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt from the fringe on 18 for a share of second. "I drive the ball with a little hook, so it comes off the club a little hot. And the fairways are hard here."

He drove to within two feet of the green on the 356-yard 17th hole. But his chip shot fell short and he missed the birdie putt.

After shooting a 65 in Friday's second round, Thorpe knew he would be paired in the final threesome with Watson and Lietzke on national television.

"I thought about it all night," said the 30-year-old North Carolina native. "I just told myself to concentrate on my own game."

However, at times it was hard to resist competing with the long-driving Lietzke off the tee.

"He hit the ball a couple times and it made me want to turn it loose," he said.

At one point today, Lietzke opened a seven-shot lead on the field. But when he slipped with three bogeys on the back nine, Thorpe said it gave him some hope.

"I wasn't looking for him to bogey," he said. "He was 16 under and he was hitting it well and putting super well. But now I'm in a good position. If I can shoot 66 or 67 tomorrow, I think I can do okay."

Lietzke, the 1977 Tucson Open winner, birdied the 10th hole to go 16under. But he three-putted the par-4 12th and bogeyed from the bunkers on 17 and 18.

"It woke me up," the tall Texan said of the three-putt green on 12. "It made me realize the fact that I'm still human."