EDISON, N.J., JULY 25 -- Ayako Okamoto of Japan overcame a miserable start, rolled in three birdies on the back nine and grabbed a one-shot lead today over British Women's Open champion Laura Davies of England after three rounds of the 42nd U.S. Women's Open.

Okamoto and Davies went to the 18th green at the Plainfield Country Club tied for the lead. Both reached the green of the 350-yard hole in two.

Okamoto missed a 12-foot birdie putt to remain at 3-under-par 213, but Davies, the tournament leader at the start of the round, three-putted from 50 feet for bogey, missing a six-footer for par.

The par for Okamoto capped a round of 2-under 70. She started the day at 1-under, but quickly went to 2-over with a bogey, double bogey, birdie, bogey start.

"I was hitting my shots on one through four well, but I had some bad luck," Okamoto, 36, said through an interpreter. "I had confidence in the shots I was hitting, so I felt it was just a matter of being patient."

Her patience paid off.

She got back to even par by making birdies at the fifth and seventh holes, then started knocking it close to the pin on the back nine. She sank a four-foot birdie at No. 14, an eight-foot birdie at 15 and a six-inch birdie at 17. She also missed a four-foot birdie putt on 13 and a 10-foot birdie attempt on No. 16.

The last time Okamoto led a tournament going into the final round was six weeks ago at the Du Maurier Classic in Canada. She shot 74 the final day and lost to Jody Rosenthal, who shot a 66.

"You learn lessons both from winning and losing," Okamoto said. "But right now I don't want to think about it. I only want to look ahead."

Davies, who started the day one shot ahead of Okamoto and played in the same group with her, also birdied 15 and 17. Her round of 72 included two bogeys.

Martha Nause, a non-winner in nine years as a professional, was the only other player under par in the field of 68 players. She was two off the lead after a round of 70 that included five birdies and three bogeys.

"Any win," said Nause, "would be fantastic."

Deedee Roberts, another non-winner as a professional, was three shots back along with former Open champion JoAnne Carner at even par 216. Roberts matched the women's course record with a 69 and Carner, the leader for much of the round, squandered a plethora of birdie opportunities and shot 72. Carner, 48, is bidding to become the oldest player to win the Open.

"To win a tournament at 48 would be the greatest thing in the world," said Carner, who has not won in two years. "The only advantage I feel I have is a lot of patience and I proved that today."

Rosenthal, Sally Quinlan and Rosie Jones were four strokes off the pace. Rosenthal had a 74, Quinlan and Jones had 71s.

Betsy King, 46-year-old Sandra Palmer and Tammie Green were five strokes off the pace. King, the No. 2 money winner on the LPGA Tour this year, had a 70, while Palmer, the 1975 Open winner, had a 75 and Green a 72.

Nancy Lopez, looking for her first Open title, faded out of the picture with a 77 for 221, eight shots behind. Defending champion Jane Geddes shot 74 for 223.