Golf is so wonderfully exasperating. On most holes, in most rounds, during most tournaments, a person seems allotted so many shots -- and it's a mystery beyond comprehension how they all even out.

T C. Chen hit one of the luckiest shots in the history of golf to be in runaway position to win the U.S. Open after 58 holes; he hit two of the unluckiest shots -- with the same swing -- to lose it.

In the fifth fairway at Oakland Hills Sunday, Chen seemed fully capable of a victory both prodigious and popular. Eight under par, which happens to be the Open record, he was four shots up on a rather weak-kneed field.

The lie in the fairway was perfect. He was a four-iron from the green. Of all the eventualities that raced through his mind just then, the last surely was that the swing he was about to produce would begin digging his golfing grave.

This is the anatomy of one of the major collapses in major-tournament golf. Better players than Chen have fallen as ingloriously in the Open, but probably no one so far so swiftly.

Only last year, the Open-hardened Hale Irwin shot three Chen-like rounds in the 60s for the first 54 holes; he skied to 79 the final round and plummeted from first to sixth.

Ben Crenshaw hit into the water on the 71st hole at Medinah and lost a chance for a playoff in '75; John Mahaffey knocked a near-impossible shot from the rough into water on the last hole a year later and lost to Jerry Pate.

Arnold Palmer blew a seven-shot lead to Billy Casper on the final nine holes of the '66 Open. Chen chunked away the Open in about 185 yards.

That was about the distance his ball had to fly if his body could execute what his mind wanted: a left-to-right shot that would nestle close enough to the flag for possible birdie and certain two-putt par.

He pushed the shot drastically, to a position near some trees that permitted only a gouge with a sand wedge.

"Really missed it," he said later.

The third shot is the one Chen may well want back most, because he probably tried to gamble too much. In his first Open, he forgot a basic Open law: take what the course allows.

But he had been defying logic all week. The first day, he nailed a three-wood 256 yards into the hole for the first two on a par-5 in the 85 years of the Open.

Other magical things had been happening: with a close-to-impossible shot near a tree behind the third hole Saturday, he chipped stiff.

Hoping for a two-putt bogey, Chen got a one-putt par.

Little wonder he tried to cozy that tricky shot from hay on the infamous fifth Sunday. He was on a roll; this was his week; wasn't a thing could stop him.

Yes, there was.

Open lore got in the way.

The ghosts of golf hurried out of nowhere and caused his nerves and his clubs to react in weird ways.

That third shot plopped 12 yards short of the green.

"A stupid thing," he admitted. "I should have chipped (more strongly) and made two putts (for a bogey five)."

The fourth and fifth strokes came on the same unfortunate swing. In similar heavy-rough position, golfers from the Scots centuries ago to hackers miles from Oakland Hills have suffered Chen-like fate.

"A freaky thing," the eventual winner, Andy North, said. "But we've all done it. Too many times."

Chen hit the ball and it popped up so straight and so quickly that his sand wedge ticked it on the follow-through. As soon as he felt impact the second time, Chen knew he would suffer a one-stroke penalty.

Which meant he was lying five -- and still not on the green. He popped the ball about eight feet past the hole, and then two-putted.

"Double par (eight)," he said. "Just gone."

It surely seemed so. From a commanding lead, Chen suddenly was tied with playing partner North, at four under, and just a shot ahead of Dave Barr.

Chen proceeded to bogey the next three holes. On the green in regulation the next hole, but an acre or so from the cup, he three-putted. He missed the fairway off the tee the next two holes and missed five- to eight-footers for par.

Those were exactly the sort of testers that had been doing half-gainers into the cup for him much of the first three rounds.

Was the quadruple bogey a factor those next holes?

"Yes, I think so," he said.

Among other nice characteristics about Chen, we realized soon that there is no quit in him. For at the ninth hole, he got himself composed again -- and drained a six-footer for par.

Another Open maxim is that nobody charges away and wins it. He who limps home less wobbly usually wins. And with not a whole lot more to lose, Chen suddenly began playing rather well.

What happens the final nine holes of so many Opens, or seems to, is that as soon as a man realizes he can win, he finds a way to lose.

Somebody whispers to, say, Barr: Psssst! You're tied for the lead.

Duck hook.

Fuzzy Zoeller waved a white towel in good-natured surrender toward Greg Norman on the 72nd hole of last year's Open, thinking he had lost.

When he realized he hadn't, Zoeller fired a confident approach and two-putted, then won the playoff the next day by a zillion strokes.

Guys down the stretch Sunday were all but impaled on their one-irons.

Disastrous as his experience had been, Chen was not out of the Open until a sensational bunker shot on the final hole slid inches past the cup.

"Just bad," he said, "Terrible golf."

He paused, and added: "Not too bad for first time."

Certainly not. Any 26-year-old with enough skill and nerve to get into crash company with Arnie probably has a fine future in golf.