Can a man win the U.S. Open without playing the U.S. Open course? Or at least by not making par via Detroit now and then, or holing out every time he touches his putter?

The perils and pearls of Tom Purtzer had the Inverness Club astir much of today's third round, for here was a man who could get up and down from any cart path within 25 yards of the green, yet had a frightful time with flat lies in the fairway.

Tour players call Purtzer's plight "army golf." "Left . . . right . . . left . . . right . . . left . . ." they say in sarcastic cadence on each wild shot. But he had marched to the lead with it.

Purtzer began today tied for first with perhaps the most fragile mind in the tournament, Larry Nelson. Purtzer's putter had been as hot as any during any extend stretch of pressure golf, a wand that made small balls disappear into cups.

The sixth hole was a microcosm of Purtzer's entire tournament.

Of the first 41 holes, he had one-putted 22 times. He had made 13 birdies in all, but had made double and triple bogey on consecutive holes the first day and hit the rough seven times and bunkers three times the second.

And now he was 20 yards off the sixth green, down a slope and with a skinny tree directly between his ball and the flagstick. Surely, this would be the hole that pricked Purtzer's blimp-sized balloon. How long can a man keep playing in such a daze?

Purtzer had saved par from off the green at the first hole and driven under a plump oak off the second tee. He brushed branches with his backswing and downswing and the ball kissed another branch as it leaped out of the tall grass. He nearly made a 12-foot putt for par.

He had barely missed a bird at three - and had saved par at four after hitting his tee ball into the deep rough and forcing six men to push a portable camera tower 20 yards so he could play the third shot his long approach had left him.

The 11-foot par putt dropped.

All of that might have crossed his mind behind No. 6 as he pondered whether to smack this dreaded chip into the bank - and hope the ball rolled somewhere onto the green - or to cut a wedge enough to avoid the branches and hold the ball near the pin.

The decision was bump and run - and the ball just made the top of the hill, stopping on the fringe 14 uphill and sidehill feet from the pin. It had not been a glorious shot and he mumbled, "Oh, Jesus."

That is about as emotional as Purtzer ever gets.

"He's as nice as anybody you'd ever meet," said a reasonably close business acquaintance. "But a colorful story or anecdote? Nothing I can think of. A pretty sober man, to tell you the truth."

But then few flakes win the Open. By nature, it rewards the rather bland, steady, steel-nerved players whose game forces them never to assume any shot or any hole is easy. The curiosity of many Opens - and this one especially - is how many great players have botched the short holes.

"Sometimes you find yourself coasting," Ben Crenshaw said, "And it's easy to mess up an easy hole. Or at least a short hole. If you're in trouble, or come to a hole you know is tough, you tend to channel your concentration.

"You're frightened a bit more."

The Purtzers of golf are always a bit tentative, if not frightened. And this is the tournament in which Purtzer - and the rest of golf - would discover at what level of the sport he belongs.

He is enormously strong and scrambles well - two major qualifications for winning this major - and he has won on a tough course, Riviera, in the Los Angeles Open.

And after six holes, the U.S. Open could still be his. Yes, that 14-footer with the seven-inch break scooted into the center of the hole.

Purtzer waved to the enthusiastic crowd, but remained poker-faced, either assuming this sort of thing would continue forever or in too much of a daze to realize just what was going on.

A one-shot lead after six holes became two shots after seven, when Hale Irwin bogeyed, and Purtzer was just entering the holes he had played best the first two days.

"The first six are the key," his caddy, Russ Craver, had said. "(Lee) Trevino says Tom has the best swing on tour, but the driver hasn't gone well at all here. He can hit eight-irons out of the rough when nearly everyone else must hit a six - and the last two days he's been 31-33 on the back nine here."

Still, although he birdied the eighth hole, a disturbing pattern was taking shape for Purtzer. He was driving into unaccustomed territory - the fairway.

And he began to make bogey.

At the ninth hole, from the middle of the fairway, he skied on eight-iron second shot deep into the right bunker and two-putted. He put a nine iron into the trap at the short 10th after an ideal tee shot and dropped another stroke.

"I got it in the fairway a lot of the time," he said later, "and missed three or four greens with an eight-iron or less. How do you figure it out? I can't. But I wasn't comfortable over the ball so much of the time.

"I was comfortable with the drive, but not with the irons. And setup is 75 percent of the game. If you don't feel comfortable over the ball, how are you gonna hit it like you want to?"

Slowly, Purtzer began to rejoin the mortals of golf - and by the time he sliced his tee ball on 18 - again - he was four over for the day and five shots behind the suddenly torrid Irwin.

But then he put another wondrous swing on a short iron, the ball landing within 11 feet of a bird. Could that wand bring off one more one-putt? No.

I'm probably right where I should be," he said. "The way I've been playing I don't deserve to be leading the Open." He considered the irony of his erroneous zone being the fairway, position A, where even hackers have a chance at par.

Concentration, like every resource, cannot be overextended. Perhaps he had worked so hard escaping from trees and ponds and pine cones that he coasted mentally over shots that should have been easy.

Or . . .

"As the day progressed," he said, and his thoughts began to drift. "Just the pressure of the Open, or something . . . a bit anxious . . . I just never could get set up."

He walked away, alone, a man who had orbited Inverness for much of three days finally was experiencing the always numbling sensation of a golfer's re-entry.