George Burns has been this route before. He has led golf tournaments after 54 holes, after 63 holes, after 70 holes and found a way, in his words, "to kick them away."

Tonight, after three superb rounds at the Merion Golf Club, Burns is 18 holes away from wiping out those bad memories in emphatic fashion. At seven-under-par 203, he is leading the U.S. Open by three shots. His score is the lowest 54-hole total in the 81-year history of the tournament.

"I'm 18 holes away from a dream," Burns said after shooting a gritty 68 on a day when rain softened the course early and wind hardened it late. "I've got a long way to go. I just want to go out tomorrow and make 18 pars and let the other guys shoot at it."

The other guys will have to shoot the lights out to catch Burns. The closest is Austrialian David Graham, who had 70 today and is at 206. Bill Rogers, virtually unnoticed most of the day, is third at 207, followed by Jack Nicklaus, John Schroeder and Chi Chi Rodriguez at 208.

Ben Crenshaw, who shot 64 to tie the course record, and set the third-round Open mark, while the greens still were wet and soft from an early morning rain, is one of four players at 209. The others are first-round leader Jim Thorpe, who had 70 today; John Cook (71), and Tommy Valentine (72). Tom Watson, who 24 hours ago pronounced himself excited about his chances, shot those chances down with a triple-bogey 7 at the 15th hole, finishing with a 73 for 212.

If Burns withstands the pressure of leading the Open and becomes champion Sunday, the 11th hole at Merion, the hole where Bobby Jones won the U.S. Amateur title to complete his Grand Slam 51 years ago, will have added another slightly implausible tale to its already rich history.

Burns came to 11 today seven under par, leading playing partner graham by two shots and Nicklaus by three. Standing on the tee, he made a metal mistake. "I completely misjudged the situation," he said later. "The hole was playing downwind and I should have hit a three-iron. Instead, I hit the two and got it left."

The ball landed in some grass that has been turned over in order to lay television cables, meaning that there was grass flopped over on top of Burns' ball.

Burns tried to punch a pitching wedge, trying to get the ball out of the grass and near the green. But as he swung through the ball, the grass got hold of the club before the club got to the ball and he yanked the shot even farther left, into the trees, and, crucially, behind a gallery bleacher.

"I really yanked it," Burns said. "I thought when I saw it rolling in there that I might be there the rest of the afternoon."

Graham, standing on the green, already safely on in two, had one thought. "He might make a seven from that spot."

But when Burns arrived at the wayward ball he found help waiting in the form of six USGA officials. The bleacher was directly between Burns' ball, sitting in high, twisted grass, and the green. Under the rules, Burns was entitled to line of sight relief, meaning he could move the ball to a spot where the bleacher was not in his path.

Thus, Burns picked the ball up from its horrid lie and moved it 23 yards to his right, where he dropped it. He still had a tough chip and he left it just short of the green. From there he pitched to six feet. He made the putt and escaped with one of the luckiest bogeys in Open history.

Burns smiled. "If I'd had to play the ball from where it was I don't know what I would have made," he said. "In the days of Bobby Jones there wouldn't have been any bleachers and I would have had to play the ball from there. But, that's the way this game is, sometimes you get lucky."

The rest of the day he was good, very good. This was a day when the leaders expected to tear tiny Merion to shreds.

Eight players, led by Crenshaw, had posted scores of 68 or better early in the day, the greens being softened by the rain, Crenshaw had declared the course almost defenseless after his round, saying he expected his chances to float away as the afternoon wore on and the leaders attacked the seemingly vulnerable 6,544-yard miniature.

It never happened. One by one those on the leader board met disaster. Watson's triple bogey was one of three by contenders. Greg Norman, the white-maned Australian, took one at No. 12 to go from two under par to one over, where he eventually finished. Bill Kratzert was three under until he made 6 at the tiny 129-yard 13th, taking three shots from the back bunker. Nicklaus and playing partner Valentine each made a double bogey at 14.

"The key for me has been avoiding those two-shot disasters," Burns said. "I've had chances to have that happen, like at 11, but I haven't done it."

In fact, Burns made three bogeys today and each time came back to birdie the next hole, the most significant being an eight-foot putt for birdie at 12 moments after his escape at 11.

He started the day with birdies at the first two holes, both times getting a sand wedge to 10 feet, then making the putts. "That was very important because it gave me confidence that I could shoot a good score."

The man who seemed likely to shoot the best score during the early going was Nicklaus. Seeking his fifth Open title, Nicklaus was pumped up in the early going, spurred on by a raucous gallery that hooted and cheered when its hero raised an eyebrow.

He started strong, knocking a wedge five feet for birdie at No. 1. But with the skies threatening and the humidity thick enough to peel, Nicklaus, blue shirt soaked through, struggled the rest of the front nine. He was bunkered at Nos. 4 and 7 and took bogeys on each hole.

But at nine, after staring incredulously at the leader board that showed him trailing by five, Nicklaus began rolling. He twisted a 15-footer in for birdie there. At 10, with the grassless tee nothing but mud he slipped -- "almost fell flat on my face," -- and his tee shot hit a branch almost immediately and ended in high grass next to a bunker. He salvaged par from there, though, and got to four under with a 14-foot birdie at 12.

Then came 13. Nicklaus' eight-iron shot hit about six feet in back of the pin and kicked back, finally rolling four inches to the left, just before it looked ready to drop for an ace. The birdie put Nicklaus five under.

"At that point," Nicklaus admitted, "I was excited."

The excitement died at 14, where Nicklaus pulled his tee shot left into the rough. He came out to within 30 yards of the green then hit a week chip 30 feet short. From there he three-putted for the double-bogey.

The charge was over. Nicklaus took another bogey when he three-putted 17 and limped home with 71.

"I have to go out tomorrow and play well on the whole golf course, not just parts of the golf course," Nicklaus said. "George is a good player. Someone's going to have to shoot a very good round to beat him."

If Burns handles the pressures of the back nine Sunday the way he did today, he should win. After bogeying 14, he birdied 15 with a 15-foot putt. He missed both the 17th and 18th greens but each time chipped to about seven feet and made his putts.

"If George was ever going to make bogey he was going to do it at those two holes," said Graham, who had an up-and-down round himself, making five birdies and five bogeys. "If he shoots 70, he'll be tough to beat."

If someone does make a run at him, Burns says he won't know about it, "I hope I've learned from my failures," he said. "I'm not going to look at any leader boards tomorrow, I'm not going to worry about anyone but me. I'm going to try to approach Sunday exactly the same way I've approached the first three days."