It had been a mongrel of a doggie par. Hackers know how it goes: rough-rough, 21-foot putt bites the cup. Bruce Devlin still was within a shot of the U.S. Open lead late today, but as he walked to play the 49th hole he was in much the same shape as when he approached the first oh so many memories ago: in search of a game.

"Haven't even smelled 10 in three days," he said later of that bleak stretch of Pebble he has yet to par, and that had seemed to grease his slide back from the golfing heavens today. "Poor putts early; poor driving almost all the round."

With a 75, he had lost the Open lead but not all hope of victory.

A fascinating fact of Open life is that ordinary players frequently are touched for a day in our most special major; sometimes the magic extends to two or three rounds; every now and then someone like Orville Fleck lights up the sky though the final shot.

Until two days ago, Devlin had played his way into a television tower. A decade after finishing eighth on the money list, he talked a better game than he played. It's a nice life style: enter some tournaments, miss the cut but stay in close touch with the game.

Had anyone asked analyst Devlin to handicap golfer Devlin this week he might have chuckled and said something like: off the board. A fellow had better be able to keep his tee ball in sight to have any hope of winning here, and Devlin was hitting his every which way but straight.

"Found it Thursday," he said of a swing that suddenly took to a new club, one of those steel models with which he still dreams of somehow stealing this tournament, becoming at 44 the oldest man to win the Open. He had a wonderful chance to give it away today, but fought splendidly to stay within two shots of Bill Rogers and Tom Watson.

Everyone has been anxious for Devlin to slip from the leader board, as though it would be offensive for a man with a swing that seems uglier with each passing hole to give Jack and Tom and the other major pretenders a kick in the ego.

Devlin wouldn't fade easily.

Partly, that was because he found the keys to golfing jail time after time on the back nine today. Devlin has not played well lately, simply because he hardly has played at all. Players hoping to move from masters to legend status practice the sort of trouble shots Devlin faced hour after hour, day after day. Devlin hasn't hit them in months.

He remembered how those final five holes today.

"To be only two back," he said, "I feel like I've gotten away with murder. I found the cabbage, the hay, played about as badly as I hope I do."

Somebody called him courageous.

"Could have been 80," he admitted.

Let's find out how. Let's join him in goat country, wicked weeds off the 13th fairway and walk along in admiration as a gritty fellow fights history, logic and two wedges that came close to cutting balls the way us duffers do at Needwood.

Having blown three birdie chances inside 10 feet on the first seven holes, Devlin bogeyed nine and 10. And a gallery of several thousand instantly dwindled to several hundred, the rest hustling off in search of Watson and Rogers and leaving Devlin for a goner. Three over would quickly mount, perhaps geometrically.

It could have; it didn't.

From the 13th tee, Devlin hooked into the left rough. With no shot to the green, he sailed a pop-up to the right rough 50 yards from the flag. Then he chunked the ball 21 feet past the pin. The ball was close to smiling by now, that wedge having dented it a bit.

So Devlin hauled out one of its brothers. He fussed over the putt for about as long as the law allows, finally struck it and was surprised as anyone when it dived into the cup for four. Sighing, he drew an X in the air. And walked off for more adventure.

He had cruised through the next holes the prior two days, basking in such uncommon shotmaking and the feeling that perhaps, maybe, this was going to be the tournament of his dreams. Today, he was hoping he could find the ball each time he struck it.

Surprisingly, he went fairway-fairway on the par-5 No. 14, then got a bad bounce and had to caress a two-putt par from the light fringe. He saved par from a trap at 15, saved par from thick rough at 16 and saved par after nearly skulling a wedge at 18.

In between, he almost birdied 17. He sort of closed his stance, opened the club face and sent a low hook boring into the wind and to within 10 feet of the cup 209 yards away. Had he made it, Devlin would have been embarrassed to have played so horribly and been penalized so little. Chagrined, but not sorry. He missed, anyway.

The potential disaster facing him at 13 had stayed at three over; he'd stopped the bleeding.

"Thought we were gonna have to carry you in for a while out there," a friend said.

"As bad as I've played in a long time," Devlin allowed.

He immediately scurried to the practice tee; no sooner had he hit a few balls than tournament officials whisked him to the press tent. He had led or been tied for first the opening two rounds.

"Less pressure tomorrow," he said, hoping. When it was mentioned David Graham had credited Devlin with making his game sound enough to win the Open last year, he said: "I need to apply some of that to myself."

This went on for another five minutes. Then he asked, almost pleaded: "Can I go back and practice some more?"