Just as television coverage clicked off today, the U.S. Open took its only dramatic twist. T.C. Chen missed a putt about the width of this page.

His only lapse in concentration this rainy afternoon at Oakland Hills still did not cost Chen the lead he held after rounds one and two. Nor did it keep him from tying the 54-hole Open record of seven-under-par 203.

What it did was lift 1978 Open champ Andy North (70 -- 205) to within two shots of the lead, and give a half-dozen or so other players hope. Until that shot, it appeared Chen might be able to get up and down from Lee Iacocca's den here in the Detroit suburbs.

Chen salvaged par from some strange places again today, and seemed about to do so once more on the 17th hole after his long bunker shot lipped the cup and stopped less than two feet away.

ABC's 18-hole coverage stopped almost as soon Chen's super sand shot did. Other news about the world apparently was more compelling than another ho-hum stroke from Chen in what had seemed a ho-hum Open.

"When I was putting, water dropped from my hat," he said, "and I lost my concentration. I picked up my head. It was an easy putt."

Even so, Chen's one-under-par 69 left him "happy," and hopeful that the weather would be equally nasty Sunday. He grew up playing in such conditions in Taiwan.

Besides, he said, "If it's perfect weather, maybe someone shoots 61 and catches me."

As so often happens in the Open, the final round is all but impossible to handicap. The leader hasn't won anything except open tournaments in Japan and Korea and is 112th on the PGA Tour money list this year.

Only last year, two-time Open champion Hale Irwin was in almost exactly Chen's position, with three rounds in the 60s.

He shot 79 the final day and finished sixth.

On the other hand, an obscure Texan named Lee Trevino shot three rounds in the 60s at Oak Hill in '68 -- and then fired another subpar number to win.

"I think my driver will be good tomorrow," Chen said. That would be most helpful, especially on the opening holes where he often has been forced to scramble.

For the contenders behind North, the mood was best expressed by the only player besides Chen under par today, Seve Ballesteros: "I think (Chen) will come back (to the field). But I don't know. There's tremendous pressure.

"He looks like a good player, but I don't know how good. He also looks like he takes the pressure good."

Off his record since winning the '78 Open, North hardly strikes fear into the six others at par or under after three rounds.

"Maybe he'll be the only guy to win two Opens and nothing else," said Johnny Miller, somehow forgetting that North won the 1977 American Express-Westchester Classic.

North was frostier than the temperature on the course when someone at a news conference suggested his Open success had been a "freak."

He is playing the same steady golf that fetched victory seven years ago.

"I felt like I was playing well and under control then (before the final round at Cherry Hills)," North said. "I feel like I'm playing well and under control now. You have to stay calm in the Open, not get excited when you hit a bad shot."

The only ugly shots North hit today were on the 4th, 10th, 11th and 16th holes; he had a net par for the four.

He almost made a 30-footer for par at No. 4, and did make a 60-footer for birdie at No. 16 after he pulled a relatively simple eight-iron shot. He saved par on 10 and 11.

Interestingly, North wore less rain gear the harder it rained.

"I started in a rain suit," he said, "and with an umbrella and eight towels. I didn't hit a good shot for four holes.

"So I took the jacket off. There was getting to be too much junk. I was going to get wet anyway, and all that junk was getting my rhythm off."

North paid little attention to Chen, he said, because he tries to ignore what he can't control.

"That's how you make bogeys," he said.

Halfway through the round, lots of others were concerned that Chen had been touched by the golf gods this week and was about to lap the field.

Had that 17-foot putt at No. 9 not missed going in by a turn or two, his lead over North and Jay Haas would have been five strokes.

Chen was eight under at the time, having made birdie at the second and eighth holes and saved par with nice chips and better putts at Nos. 3 and 6.

"The putter has helped me most," Chen said.

Poor Haas.

"It helps to be lucky," Chen said, "and he was unlucky at No. 13."

A foot or so in almost any direction, Chen said, and Haas might have been able to invent a shot to save par; instead, he made double bogey.

Haas made one bogey before and three after to end the round with a 77 and positioned nine soggy shots behind his playing partner.

Chen wore a hat with his native flag stitched to the side. It was a gift brought from Washington by the deputy director of public affairs for the Taiwan embassy, Chien Shent-Yuan.

Chen has not called his family to report his good fortune.

"After I win," he said.

The small bits of Open history he knows have come from the program here. He realized that North is a former champion and figured Ben Hogan is "a more early days Jack Nicklaus."

Did Chen know he had tied the 54-hole record George Burns set at Merion in 1981?


Yes, a U.S. Golf Association official repeated, Chen would be the first player from the Far East to win the Open.

"It would make me very, very happy," Chen said, "and maybe my country happier."

There are 18 holes standing in the way of that joy.

Said North of his own chances: "If I can keep swinging well, and composed, I might have some fun tomorrow."

Added Ballesteros to a reporter about his and Chen's subpar rounds today: "Anybody can play in the sunshine. Even you."