Hole after hole, shot after shot today, there was the increasing feeling that Larry Nelson just might win the U.S. Open without having to strike the ball under searing U.S. Open pressure. As it had five years ago, the back nine at Oakmont was humbling Tom Watson.

In that PGA Championship, Watson stood on the 10th tee with a five-shot lead. Two players caught him in regulation; he and Jerry Pate lost a playoff to John Mahaffey on the second hole. Something similar was taking shape today. Came the turn--and a turn in Watson's fortunes.

He had played the front nine as well as a mortal can. Johnny Miller charged through it in 32 strokes during the historic 63 that won the '73 Open here; Watson was a stroke better today. With a bogey at the seventh hole. He also left Seve Ballesteros gasping, for air, his chances to match an Open with a Masters essentially nil.

The day began with as much anticipation as any final round in any major championship in recent memory. When was the last time so much nice could happen to so many players? Victory here would take Ballesteros halfway through a Grand Slam, and he finished second at the site of this year's British Open (Royal Birkdale) as a teen-ager.

Watson winning would give him back-to-back Open titles, the first time that would have happened in more than 30 years and only the sixth time in the history of golf. Two immortals, Ben Hogan (1950 and '51) and Bobby Jones (1929 and '30), have accomplished it. Willie Anderson, who never broke 303 in any of them, won three straight Opens starting in '03.

And Calvin Peete was trying to become the first black to win a major title. John Shippen, who helped build the course, was in a five-way tie for the lead after one round of the second Open, in 1896, and Jim Thorpe had first place to himself after round one of the '81 Open.

Like Ballesteros, Peete slid from contention early. A long-iron shot flew into a trap at the first hole; that bogey may well have caused the hook that led to a rough-to-rough bogey on the short second. One shot behind Watson at the start, he was five back after three holes.

From the sixth tee, Watson was striding toward an even more permanent place in history. His tee ball had missed landing in the cup by inches, and he passed the time chit-chatting with the president of the U.S. Golf Association, William Campbell.

He completed his thought several steps from the green, then completed his birdie with about a seven-foot putt. Watson was flying by everybody the vast number of golf fans care for. And Ray Floyd, who has won nearly every important tournament except the Open, shot himself out of contention, four over through 10 holes.

The only problem for Watson was one of those largely anonymous strokers who so often sneak to victory in the Open while our eyes are on the stars. But this Nelson can play. My how he can play. Ten under for his last 33 holes is how hot.

Nelson's first-round 75 had him concerned about making the cut. One of the straightest drivers on tour, he has been knocking it crooked with his putter lately. Since early Saturday, however, the ball has been diving into the cup so regularly it must be afraid the 1981 PGA champ would do something wicked to it otherwise. He wouldn't, of course.

Nelson is one of the most religious players in sport, often conducting Sunday services on tour. That has not been possible of late.

"Been occupied on the course between 8 in the morning and noon on Sundays," he said, laughing. Meaning he has been playing just well enough to make the cuts but not so fine as to rate a midafternoon starting time. Shooting 10 shots lower the third round than the first round, then going four under through 15 holes today, got him a coveted tee time Monday: 10 a.m.

When the weather just might let this Open finish.

We'll see then just how Nelson plays the real Open. He wants to be exactly the way he was on the one hole there was pressure today. And rain. And thunder. And lightning. He played his final hole, the 15th, like a champ. Long and straight off the tee; long and straight from the fairway of the toughest hole on the course.

"Maybe the two best shots I've hit," he admitted.

Most of the ones before also were excellent. But they were struck in drastically different circumstances. A man plays a course, as Nelson had been doing with Watson apparently shooting lights-out, a whole lot easier than he does with the weight of victory tugging at his putter.

A hole ahead of Watson, Nelson was as relaxed as anyone had seen him. Normally fussy and sober-faced, he was smiling as though this were nothing more important than a Sunday outing. If he got lucky, Nelson could go unnoticed to the clubhouse a few strokes under par and let Watson thrash his way home.

That didn't quite work.

On the 15th tee, Nelson had seen Watson back up far enough for the entire course to notice him. That short-iron to within tap-in distance he had struck to the 14th green would snap anyone to attention.

Nelson had a major decision to make after those two splendid shots to the 453-yard 15th hole: to putt or not to putt. Play already was officially suspended, so he could leave that eight-footer until the lightning was far from his backswing.

"I'd had something similar in Atlanta last year," he said, "and walked off the course without putting. When I came back, I missed the putt. And then made triple bogey.

"The speed of the green would change after the rain. And that putt was fairly easy. I hit it as well as I can hit a putt." But the ball slid by. Then the blows he had struck were made insignificant by more dangerous ones.