Not many golfers could have withstood Greg Norman's round at the Kemper Open yesterday. But then, not many golfers hit tree limbs and come up with birdies, wade in creeks on the way to double bogeys and finish under par.

Somehow, Norman still is in contention to win his third Kemper Open going into today's final round. His struggle with the new Tournament Players Course at Avenel in Potomac has been a drama in itself each day. Yesterday, his pinwheeling across the 6,864-yard layout reached a critical point. He suffered two bogeys and a double bogey, yet also had seven birdies for what was eventually a most enigmatic 3-under-par 68. That put him at 8-under-par 205, tied with Scott Hoch four strokes out of the lead, which was held by Tom Kite at 12-under-par 201.

Norman was a coleader after the first day with a 64, but he returned the second round to shoot 73 and drop five strokes back of leader Chris Perry. His third round was a mixture of both: sometimes he appeared headed for another 73, sometimes he appeared headed for another 64.

"I had to shake my head at one stage that I was still in contention the way things have been going," he said. "And I've played well enough to lead it. But that's golf. That's why you love it and hate it."

The result of Norman's machinations was that he began the day five strokes back, crept within three, fell as far behind as seven, but somehow ultimately remained within striking distance. Had he not bogeyed the 18th hole with a three-putt, he would have been just three strokes out of the lead.

His round began with a bogey on the par-5 second hole. But he eventually got five birdies on the front nine, four of them in a row. He birdied the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh, all par-4s except for the short, 479-yard par-5 sixth. There, he attempted to reach the green in two and putt for an eagle, but his iron caught a tree limb and bounced into rough below the green. He chipped from 40 feet to within inches of the cup and settled for a birdie to go 7 under par.

On the par-4 seventh, he sank a 20-foot putt on a difficult, undulating green to go 8 under. A routine par on No. 8 set up the ninth hole.

That's where he took his double bogey, out of a creek; it may turn out to be his most important hole of the tournament. It is a difficult par-3 of 182 yards, with an elevated tee, bunkers to the left and a creek to the right of an elongated, narrow green.

Norman hit an iron that hung in the wind; going for the pin is dangerous because of the narrow green. The shot came down in the rough to the right of the flag, kicked sideways and tumbled into the creek.

"If the ball had gone another six feet then I'm only 18 feet away," he said. "I thought I hit the shot the way I should have. But that's the way it's gone this week, I hit a good shot and get a bad result."

Norman called for a ruling: he wanted to know if he could take a drop on the green's side of the creek, or whether he had to drop on the other side and pitch over the water. Officials ruled he had to drop on the other side. Instead of dropping, Norman elected to try to play the ball, because the drop was on a downhill lie that would make an equally difficult shot. Out came the rain pants.

He waded in deep, and his only option was to hack the ball to the fat of the green some 50 feet opposite the pin. He stripped off the rain pants to whistles, toweled off, and threw the towel at his caddy, apparently unfazed. He was too firm with the putt coming back, and he ran the ball six feet past. He missed that one and took the double bogey.

"I made the right decision, but then I did a stupid thing," he said. "I three-putted."

Then, Norman did something smart: he collected himself. He parred the 10th, and then immediately picked up his sixth birdie of the day, on the par-3 11th. Another came at the par-4 14th, and then another at the par-4 16th, where he holed a tortuous, 50-foot putt that finally went straight at the heart of the hole.

The final bogey on 18 took some pleasure out of the back nine. But all things considered it was a piece of work, and a moral victory to pick up three birdies after the disastrous ninth.

"What's done is done," Norman said. "You can't change things. So you try to get your composure back as quickly as possible and hope not to miss any opportunities to get some strokes back."

According to Norman, the round was entirely typical of the way he has played this year. He is still winless, despite a number of tournaments in which he has been in contention. His earnings amount to $236,931 so far; good enough, but not on last year's pace, when he led the tour.

"The whole year seems to be going that way," he said. "I can't get the momentum going. I get it there and then it slips, I get it there and then it slips.

"But you never know. Maybe tomorrow it won't slip."