When you start trying to play it safe here at the Tournament Players Championship, the vultures come out of the swamp and start circling.

Be a flag shooter here, boys, or you're dead meat left in a hot sun.

D.A. Weibring was exhibit A for the prosecution today as he tried to nurse a fat four-stroke lead to the clubhouse and, instead, found himself locked in a tie with Calvin Peete and Hale Irwin for the third-round lead by evening.

Weibring -- playing slower than a snail dragging a Sunday bag -- finished bogey-bogey for a staggering 40 on the back nine and a 72 -- 208 eight-under-par total.

All week, leaders have been getting cautious and immediately falling back into the pack. When it wasn't Weibring three-putting the 17th hole or nearly going into the greenside water at the 18th, then it was Peete, after reaching 10 under, backing up by going in the water at the famous island 17th for a double bogey.

"If you try to play safe out there, it will eat you up," said Peete. "Lee Trevino says you've got to be aggressive, go for everything. You can hit a good shot and get a bad break and make double bogey, but that's still the way to play this course."

Few courses seem to put so much pressure on the front-runners as this Tournament Players Club. Bernhard Langer, who was 11 under par in the midst of the second round, completed his self-destruction at the 18th today with two balls in the water and a triple bogey for a 75 -- 213 total. Earlier in the week, Morris Hatalsky, six under through 27 holes, imploded with a 45 on the back nine on Friday and didn't even make the cut.

In light of this syndrome, it might be better to start Sunday's play somewhere back in the pack and hope to shoot a hot 67 or 68 before anybody (including you) figures out what's up.

Dan Halldorson (72), another fading contender who bogeyed the last hole, and Gary Hallberg (67) will go in at 210, with Larry Rinker (71) alone at 211. One shot farther back lies Jack Nicklaus (71), the only player on the 10-man leader board who hasn't had a round in the 60s. In all, 13 players are within five shots of the lead.

"When you're trying not to look at the scoreboards, wherever you look there they are," said Weibring, who was 12 under par after an eagle at the second hole and birdies at the sixth and ninth. "I'm not the fastest player and I've had trouble over the years with the decision-making process."

Weibring insists he has been playing faster and deciding quicker this week. It's a good thing he wasn't watching himself today on the back nine.

He threw eight tufts of grass in the air on one tee alone trying to pick a club and, after a three-putt at the 12th, looked as if he never wanted to see his short stick again. At the 17th, where he almost got wet, he left a 30-foot lag putt six feet short, then missed. At the 18th, his second shot stopped inches from the water and he chipped back "leaning over the aqua."

If Weibring seems on the verge of a full-scale case of the galloping gulps, Irwin and Peete, who each shot 69, have been tested in previous fires.

"Who turned on the fan on the back nine?" joked Peete, 41, who has won eight PGA Tour titles, seven in the last three years, but never one as prestigious or rich as this TPC, which might, at the moment, have more elan than the PGA Championship.

"It got very difficult out there coming in. But I'd still say 'spectacular' about being eight under . . . I've gotten off to a fast start all spring because I practiced over the Christmas holidays for the first time . . . I usually play best in the summer.

"Right now I feel sharp," said Peete, who is ninth on the 1985 money list ($107,585), "but I'm also rested because this is only my second tournament in five weeks . . . This is a shotmaker's course, not a putter's course, and that suits me. Right now it looks like it could be anybody's tournament . . . but I would say that this is my type course."

Irwin, who has won a tournament a year for the last three seasons, came out of the blocks birdie-birdie -- "six-footer, bingo; 10-footer, bingo" -- then played steadily except for bogeys at the 10th and 13th holes.

"It's been a long time since I played a nine as solidly as I did on the front," said the 39-year-old two-time U.S. Open champ. "I'd sure take that Sunday . . . We're getting into the last lap and it gets increasingly difficult to maintain that equilibrium.

"My heartbeat has only gotten irregular a couple of times so far -- especially at the 17th and 18th . . . I'll watch the scoreboards Sunday . . . That's what they're there for, to look at . . . But I won't let it determine my shot selection until, maybe, the 16th hole.

"There are going to be a lot of ups and downs out there and you can't pay too much attention to anybody else."

Sunday's final trio of leaders should not be as excruciatingly slow a group as this day's last bunch. Weibring and Langer are two of the planet's slower players and only one other group was still on the course by the time they got to the 16th hole.

When Peete, Irwin and Weibring head to the first tee for the last round, their motivations will be pronouncedly varied.

Peete wants to win his first glamor event. Irwin wants to prove that, "yes, I can still play." And Weibring, who had his West Coast mind management guru along with him today, said, "I consider this a major. The money doesn't make any difference. I'm out to achieve. Winning a tournament against the best field in the world is what I'll remember . . . If I do that, then I'll bring out the champagne."

Champagne D.A. Weibring?