Far out on the scenic seaside loop at Royal St. George's today, Bill Rogers' wheels wobbled and nearly fell off.
On the easiest portion of a rigorous course, the ninth through 12th holes, where birdies, rather than bogeys, are supposed to dwell, Rogers suddenly began hitting his golf ball every which way but straight. At the moment he realized that he had a clear five-shot lead in the 110th British Open, he tried to self-destruct.
However, the slim, chipper Texan with the soft drawl and softer draw was able to perform psychic repairs on himself without losing momentum. And he may have won himself a British Open title this balmy, breezy and absolutely beautiful afternoon.
Rogers went into the loop with a five-shot lead, came out of it just two ahead then steadied himself to play the last six grueling holes two under par to build his margin back to a whopping five strokes at dusk.
As Rogers, 29, walked up the 18th fairway, striding into the midst of an amphitheater of grandstands jammed with 20,000 people, he got chills up his spine for the second consecutive day.
"I would dearly love to walk up there tomorrow with things in hand," said Rogers, whose three-under-par 67, on the heels of Friday's 66, gave him a sparkling 205. "I might jump up in the stands and start cheering with 'em."
Rogers has deserved his cheers: this was the second straight day on which he shot the day's second-lowest round. His chills also are warranted. The two men tied for second at 210 -- West Germany's Bernhard Langer and England's Mark James -- are hardly of his world class.
In fact, the ony thing that Langer and James have in common, besides their modest reputations on the bush league European tour, is that both are, by their own admission, terrified putt league European tour, is that both are, by their own admission, terrified putters.
Langer, 23, lays claim to being the youngest man ever to have a full-blown case of the yips ("It lasted four years"), and James has tried more grips on the greens than a 33rd-degree mason ("Bad putters tend to change their grips.")
Perhaps the best part of Rogers' commanding position is the fact that he must gaze back eight strokes to catch a glimpse of Ray Floyd and Isao Aoki, who each shot 69s today to tie for fourth place at 213. Lee Trevino, Nick Faldo, Sam Torrance and wayward Nick Job (75) are nine shots in Rogers' wake and must depend on a total collapse if they are to have any chance.
Collapse, however, is not a foreign word in Rogers' vocabulary. This is hardly a pressure proof fellow. His friends, particularly Bruce Lietzke, call him "panther."
"That's cause I've always been kinda jumpy and antsy . . . Always movin' around . . . Never wanna miss anything," grins Rogers sheepishly. "If it looks like I don't have nerves out there, well, it's a show. I got 'em. I just been hiddin' 'em."
Rogers could want no more mortifying example of the horrors of the central nervous system than what happened to his playing partner and close friend, Ben Crenshaw d(76-215) on what Gentle Ben called "the worst golfing day of my life." Rogers began the day one shot up on Crenshaw and the social climbing Job. Gamblers, however, made Crenshaw the betting favorite, even though he was behind.
"Ben got it goin' in reverse and couldn't get it out of that gear," said Rogers. "It's a sad thing to watch. Some of the places he put it, even his putter couldn't save him."
"I've never played so badly in such good conditions," said Crenshaw, who was near tears as he walked off the last green. On this moderately difficult day of northwest breezes, Crenshaw was in the hay constantly, often missing his targets by 40 yards or more as only 10 of 81 players in the field had scores worse then his 76.
"I always seem to play my worst on the best days," said the disconsolate Crenshaw who, it must be said, appears to have a severe golfing problem when it comes to major championships.
"There's such a fine line between playin' real good and playin' real bad," said Rogers, shaking his head. "The day before, it looked like Ben would never hit another bat shot. Only those of us who play this game at the highest level know how thin that line is."
Rogers knows, because he almost crossed that invisible demarcation far out on the loop this afternoon. Once you're over that line, you're gone for the duration, as Jack Nicklaus (71-220) showed in his 83 in Thursday. And Rogers also knows that on Sunday, with the whole golfing world saying that he has this Open in his hip pocket, he will have to stay on the right side of the golfing gods one last nerve-wrenching time.
Royal St. George's didn't give Rogers a full taste of its torture treatment in this third round. But it was close. First, Rogers had to watch Crenshaw get the yips, starting with a missed three-foot putt at the third.
Next, the game of golf pulled its most diabolical trick: it became too easy. At the tough 422-yard fifth hole, the hump-and-bump, blind-shot horror that produced the highest stroke average of the day (4.49), Rogers blistered a three-iron, then strolled up to see where it landed. The ball ended up a foot from the hole for a tap-in birdie.
Then, at the eighth hole, Rogers had a 50-foot putt with more breaks than a snake. It plopped in the hole for another birdie. Rogers was dazed. He'd shot the front nine in 33 and had a streak of 30 consecutive holes without a bogey. In 45 holes, he'd only left the fairway three times.
When he got to the next scoreboard, he saw that his one-shot lead had become five. So, of course, Rogers almost blew himself sky-high. Within the next three holes, two of them very easy, Rogers had:
Driven into the rough.
Popped up a simple pitching wedge, leaving the shot 100 feet short of the target.
Putted from one side of a green entirely off the other side.
Sliced a three-wood so far right that it was outside the line of traps and, therefore, safer than it should have been.
Sliced a drive into a pot bunker that was deeper than he was tall.
The damages proved mercifully minimal. After a bogey at the 375-yard 10th, Rogers wedged over a gaping trap at the 216-yard 11th to seven feet, then rammed the par putt in the heart.
Rogers is one of a parcel of young players, all good friends who, as a group, have been ambiguous disappointments, cashing checks but seldom winning. Crenshaw, Jerry Pate, Lietzke and Rogers all have talents that seem Watsonlike, but Watson wins and they don't.
In Rogers' case, he has shown the wisdom of learning about winning by going where the pickings are easier -- overseas. The Suntory Open in Japan and the World Match Play Championship here in Britain are probably bigger victories than any he claims in the U.S.
Asked if he would rather have Langer and James, who each won about $65,000 on the European tour last year, in second place rather than two fellows named Watson and Nicklaus, Rogers blurted, "Whatta you think?"