Tom Watson had just hit his drive off Firestone's 18th tee into the right bunker. He grabbed the errant club and jumped over the retaining wall at the front of the tee like a petulant child in a sandbox. An official standing by the scorned stairway said, "Lon Hinkle did that yesterday and almost fell on his behind."

Little did he know that all three of today's leaders in the World Series of Golf would fall on their behinds at 18. Each could have taken solo possession of the lead, but bogeyed it away. Watson, Lee Trevino, and Craig Stadler, all bogeyed the 464 yard 18th, to tie at five under par, 205, for three rounds.

Fifteen of the 32 players bogeyed 18 together in the first round, will be paired in the last group Sunday with Stadler. On Thursday, the threesome included Jack Nicklaus. But after a third-round 71, Jack is back . . . in the pack with a 211.

Asked how he felt about Sunday's pairing, Trevino said, "I always like to play in the last group. They don't put you in it if you're 15 over, you know."

What, he was asked, what would be the winning score? "272," he said. "If one of the three of us can shoot a 67, we can win," Trevino paused, looking down at his hands, and said, "I know I got one more in me somewhere."

A 67 on this par-70 7,173-yard course is no mean accomplishment. The holes at Firestone are for the most part long and straight, like bowling alleys. Many golfers, trying to go for the distance this week, have placed themselves in some very, muddy alleys off the fairway.

Watson, who hit only nine fairways today, said, "When you try too hard, you don't hit it very straight. I'm going to try to cool it tomorrow."

The wet and muddy conditions caused tournament officials to institute a preferred-lie rule (allowing the golfers to clean the ball and move it one club length but not closer to the pin) for the second and third rounds. The decision about whether to play with the rule for the final round will not be made until Sunday.

Trevino, who says his drives are 30 to 40 yards shorter than those of Watson's and Stadler, said "The rule is one reason I'm tied for the lead. I can get the ball up where I can hit it. It doesn't separate us that much. iSo I hope they keep it up."

"Every guy on the leader board has a chance," he continued. "Jerry Pate (one behind with 206), (Ben) Crenshaw brought it back (also tied at 206 along with Hinkle, last year's winner). There's a lot of gulf yet, especially if they play it down. Then you're going to need a little bit of luck."

Trevino's six birdies today, on six, were the product of luck. He missed only three greens.

"I looked over to Ray (Floyd) as we were walking toward the 13th and said, 'You think golf isn't a funny game.' At the sixth hole, I was five shots out of the lead. When I left the 12th, I was tied for it. The only thing that scared me was that I was tied with Watson."

Watson, British Open champion and winner of five U.S. events this year, began the day five shots off the lead, after shooting a 75 Friday. "My play's been real consistent this week hasn't it, 65-75-65," he said. "My putter was the shinning light today. It saved me three times for pars from nice distance and made some nice puts for birdies . . . It was one of those rounds where you felt like you got away with murder."

Certainly, Watson got away fast. He birdied three of the first four holes, saved par at the fifth and sixth, birdied the seventh, and saved himself again at the ninth.

His wife Linda, squishing along in the mud, said, "I looked up and said, 'Wait a minute, he one-putted seven greens on the front nine.'"

On the par-3 221-yard 15th, Watson plunked his tee shot 30 yards to the right of the flag. He sank the putt for his fifth birdie of the day, and raised his putter and shook it like a fist.

On the 262-yard 16th, the longest hole of the course, Watson sank a 20-footer to go six under par and tie Trevino and Stadler.

"I didn't make any putts yesterday," Watson said. "Today I made every putt I looked at. I didn't drive particularly well . . . missed everything right."

It was an "alright" day for Stadler, too, the second-round leader. On each of the first four holes, Stadler, who averages 278 yards a drive, placed his tee shot long and into the right rough, but managed a par each time. On the par-3 fifth hole, it caught up with him. He drove into the back of the right bunker, and hit his second shot 30 feet from the hole. But he missed the putt.

"A couple of times I slipped off the tee," he said. "I hit the ball solid, (an understatement for a man of his dimensions, 5-foot-10, 210 pounds) but the ball always went right."

Stadler righted himself with birdies on the tighth, 10th, 12th and 16th holes.

Stadler, the last in of the leaders, arrived at the 18th green with a chance to take sole possession of first place. He needed a six-foot putt for a par -- and missed. "It spun out left," he said shrugging. "But it broke the way I thought it would . . . for once." h

A large man, with a large and droopy mustache that gives him a slightly grumpy demeanor, Stadler scuffed his foot against the green interview platform and said, "I feel like I'm still on that last green."

The ever-cheerful Trevino, who has, to say the least, the gift of gab, was asked if he thought Stadler would be good company Sunday. "You pay for $100,000," he said, "and even I might not have too much to say."