Even Hale Irwin came unglued in this afternoon's gloom as rain joined the wind and cold to send scores soaring in the British Open, but he managed to cling to his two-stroke lead going into Saturday's final round.

Only six golfers broke par of 71 today on the increasingly frustrating Royal Lytham St. Annes course and most of them did it before the rain. Only Irwin, who scrambled to a four-over 75 after two well-controlled rounds of 68, remains under par for the tournament with a total of 211.

After staying in the narrow, hilly fairways, hitting most of the well-protected green in regulation and taking a single bogey the first 36 holes. Irwin plowed through the rough, hit into four bunkers and rolled right over several greens while scoring two bogeys, a double bogeys and only one birdie.

None of his closest pursuers could do much better. Spain's Severiano Ballesteros, playing with Irwin, recorded four bogeys and a double bogey to go with two birdies for a 75. That kept Ballesteros two strokes behind at 213.

Defending champion Jack Nicklaus was fortunate to escape a horribly erratic round of five bogies and three birdies with a 73 to move up to a tie for third with Britain's Mark James at 214. Nicklaus was one stroke behind going into the final day before winning the Open at St Andrews last year.

James, 25, a former English amatuer champion, shot 69, today's second-lowest score. Japan's Tohru Nakamura had a 67 and Gary Player a 69, both while the sun shone unexpectedly and only temporarily during the morning and early afternoon.

Four strokes behind at 215 were Australian Roger Davis and Bob Byman and Ben Crenshaw. With consistent rounds of 72, 71 and 72, Crenshaw has the putting skill to make up for mistakes on the treacherous fairways here.

At 216, five strokes from the lead, are Tom Watson, Australia's Greg Norman, Japan's Isao Aoki and Britain's Bill Longmuir. Aoki is another putting artist who has done well on these bumpy greens.

Longmuir, the discotheque personality who took the first-day lead with a 65, continued his slide with a 77 after landing in sand traps and losing three strokes on par on the first two holes. He nevertheless was cheered on lustily all day by boisterous fellow Scotsmen, Britain's most demonstrative sports fans.

Watson won the British Open in 1975 and 1977, and was the pretournament betting favorite in Britain, where wagers are legal in neighborhood betting shops.

"It's a tough golf course," Watson said after scrambling to a 76. "The incoming nine holes are a very tough test of golf."

Those back-nine holes once again were ruinous for Nicklaus. After finishing the front nine only one over par because he kept missing makeable medium-distance putts, he bogeyed three holes in a row, 11 through 13, landing in the same trap on the par-3 12th hole that cost him a double bogey Thursday.

He pointed out later that he had gained on Irwin despite a third gained on Irwin despite a third

Although they played as badly as everyone else, the quiet, methodical Irwin and the handsome Ballesteros staged a dramatic face-to-face duel in the rain on the back nine, trading bobogeys rather than the birdies that are supposed to highlight such confrontations. Ballasteres had fallen two to four strokes behind when he put his tee hole. But he climbed to within put his tee shot out of bounds on the second hole. But he climbed to within one stroke after they moved onto the back nine with the rain blowing into their faces, Irwin bogeying the 10th and 11th holes.

"I flatly played poorly today," said Irwin, whose glasses were sprayed by the rain. "When the rain started at the 10th hole. I never got set on the back nine. I was always just a little off balance."

For the next few holes, the two golfers matched shots, hitting the ball to almost the same spots on the fairways and in the rough until Ballesteros missed an eight-foot putt for a bogey-5 on the 14th hole.

On the 15th Ballesteros became angry when he hit into the middle of the fairway only to find his ball lying behine d a low rise which, he later said, forced his second sot off line enroute to another bogey-5.

"When you are in the fairway, you should have a good lie," he said, in what could be the Royal Lytham lament.

Unnerved, Ballesteros also bogeyed the par-4 17th, where he hit a drive into a deep hole on the side of the fairway, put his next shot into the roughShort of the hole and missed a 12-foot putt.

On the 18th, despite the exhortations of the crowd, which reacts enthusiasically to his enthusiasm and left a 12-foot putt for birdie on the lip of the cup.

Irwin missed his chance to pull away from Ballesteros and the field when "it just came unglued on the 17th. While Ballesteros was bogeying that hole, Irwin was making his double bogey.

He went from the fairway rough into a sand trap and blasted only a few feet out of the sand to the fringe of the green. After pitching eight feet short of the hole on his fourth shot of the par-4 hole, he missed the putt.

Just as he had Thursday, Irwin then held onto his two-stroke lead by making an eight-foot putt under pressure on the 18th. He got to that green, however, only after hitting his tee shot nearly out of bounds, the ball coming to rest at the base of bushes well to the right of the fairway, running his iron shot from there over the green into a small depression behind it, then pitching beautifully up onto the green for his dramatic putt, the last shot of the third day of this tournment.

Irwin and Ballesteros will be the last twosome on the course again Saturday for what could be the deciding duel.

"If I can put together 18 par tomorrow in these conditions," Irwin said, "It would be a very difficult score to beat."