One of the burning questions before the third round of the Kemper Open yesterday was how much a $400,000 golf tournament weighs and whether Tom Watson would be strong enough to shoot a near-record score carrying it on his back. He was about to do just that, pop onto the leader board at Congressional and provide the Sunday draw so desperately needed, until he hit the ball four times at the ninth hole -- with his putter.

In their own way, Watson's weird whacks on the ninth green will be as astonishing as anything to be offered by the Kemper this year; as odd as Mike Sullivan's tee ball on No. 5 hitting a fan near the eighth green, or the lost ball near the 10th green that some officials believe may still be hiding somewhere in a tree. Even the low scores yesterday were not more memorable than the low point of Watson's wanderings. He made six birdies in all, could easily have made nine and actually lost ground on first place.

Not as many fans saw golf's best player act like a hacker as could have. Those who didn't were the smart ones in his gallery, or thought they were. Having watched his third shot drift to within 40 feet or so of the pin, they remembered that one of life's certainties is Watson two-putting from any distance less than an acre and moved past the ninth green to an advantageous spot on the next hole.

So Watson must tell some of us about the ugliness. How did it happen, Tom? How could the best putter in the world, including Japanese magician Isao Aoki, a man who adverages about 27 taps an entire round, take four stabs on one hole, three of them from three feet or less?

"Missed the third one," he said.

It's not the best line, but not bad for Watson. Still, the smile on his face was not friendly. He was walking off the practice tee, after 40 minutes of penance for a 69 that could have been a 64, and trying to avoid as much discussion as possible about how someone so brilliant could suddenly be so mortal.

"I don't want to say anything more," he said in a way that meant he had put his period on the matter. Or wanted to, hoping this would not be remembered as The Day Tom Watson Four-Putted.

Then fellow pro Larry Ziegler walked into his life.

Ziegler needed a favor that Watson was happy to fill. But he could not resist saying, full of surprise: "How's it feel to four-putt?"

"Oh, you've done it," snapped Watson, still the smiling iceman. "You know the feeling."

It came so suddenly, after Watson's wand produced a birdie from about four feet at the eighth hole and he had gone from even par to two under for the tournament and within striking distance of first place. At that point, with Watson in short-iron distance for another possible birdie, Kemper officials were happy for one of the few times lately.

Too much rain and too many obscure players had conspired to cut the crowds drastically and create the probability of Kemper ending well over par financially. To cut losses as much as possible, the tournament needed its top draw to leap into contention and lure thousands of stargazing Washingtonians to watch him try to be equally heroic in the final round.

How much would Kemper offer for Watson to shoot 64?

"Half the course," an official joked before the third round.

For three holes, Watson played as though that were possible. Drives that sometimes have scurried off entire courses this year stayed in sight, irons were all but knocking the pins down and Watson made birdie on two of the first three holes.

"I've kept streaks like that going," he said later, "six under after five holes. I was five under after the first five holes at Riviera one year, six under the last five holes once at Pinehurst."

On the fourth hole, Watson's game got leaky. He pushed his drive under a tree and made bogey. That was the start of a frustrating daylong pattern. He played splendidly most of the round, but could not translate that into numbers.If we continue the racecar motif that dominated stories after the first two rounds, Watson yesterday was like a dragster who spins his tires before the start of a race but jams on the brakes often enough not to get very far.

Watson's wheels could have come off at nine, for four-putting (from 40 feet to three feet to three feet past the hole to 18 inches as nearly as can be determined) is the golfing equivalent of kissing turn three in overdrive.

One of the scorekeepers in Watson's group, Pam Breed, had seen worse wrecks at Congressional. Mark McCumber's first hole of his first Kemper round last year was the diabolical 10th. He five-putted. Just before striking the ball the next-to-last time, he had quipped to his caddy:

"I've never four-putted."

He still hasn't.

Then McCumber turned to Breed and said: "Do you play here?"

"No."

"You're lucky."

How would Watson react to such disaster? Can a golfer of his skill put the wheels back on while still trying to charge? Does he instantly purge such experiences from his mind?

"You don't settle down after things like that," he admitted later.

Sure enough, he missed a saving par putt, from about three feet, on the dreaded 10th. Presumably livid, he leaked another drive about 15 feet behind a slender tree. The entire Watson machine, wheels, transmission, seat, seemed about to spill all over Congressional.

From out of his bag, all of a sudden, came Watson's good wrench, a two-iron. It was exactly 106 yards to the front of the green and 26 paces to the pin, Watson was informed, so he stroked that two-iron firmly enough to bend the ball low, around the tree and skipping about 106 yards and 29 paces, to about 12 feet from the cup.

He holed it for birdie.

Watson made two more birds, and missed birdie putts from six feet at No. 13 and eight feet at No. 18. With another dripping bogey at 16, he was one under for the day. He started the round six shots out of first place; he ended it seven shots back.

To add to his consternation, he said, "the course was set up real easy. Too easy. Lots of trees were up. Some of the par 3s."

He said it was impossible to forget experiences such as the ninth green, but "can't remember" his last four-putt. Yes, something similarly awful had happened "a couple of years ago."

At the par-3 No. 12, after that spectacular birdie, Watson chipped downhill to within perhaps a foot of the hole for par. He marked his ball. One can never be too sure these days.

Two holes later, Watson hit a driver so well that one spectator muttered: "Really smoked that one."

And another said of the greenside Houdini: "If he could only putt half decent."