MEDINAH, ILL. -- Don't be fooled by the U.S. Open leader board. Erase the first six names. Curtis Strange, trying to become the first man in 85 years to win three Opens in a row, is really in the lead here.

Nick Faldo, who has won the last two Masters and craves the second leg of the 1990 Grand Slam, trails him by one.

Jack Nicklaus, trying to become the oldest man to win a major and the first man to win five U.S. Opens, is one shot further back.

Tied with Nicklaus is Seve Ballesteros, the golf magician who never has won his sport's most prestigious title.

And, just one shot further back, very much in the hunt if he creates one of his patented Sunday comebacks, is Greg Norman, the beloved but jinxed Shark.

See how much fun golf can be if you just use your imagination and erase those top six names from this U.S. Open scoreboard: Mike Donald and Billy Ray Brown at seven-under-par 209 as well as Larry Nelson, Jeff Sluman, Mark Brooks and Tim Simpson at 210.

Why erase them? Because, except for Nelson, they can't win the U.S. Open on this course and in such company. Oh, sure, be picky. Of course, it's conceivable. But all of these fellows already were collapsing by sundown Saturday and they'll complete the plummet at the earliest opportunity. You can't quite book it, but it's close. None of them have the game, the major experience and the nervous system for monstrous Medinah on Sunday at the Open. Except Nelson, who's won three majors and, tee to green, is playing even better than his recent scores (67-69).

As Nicklaus has said for years, don't look at who's ahead, ask who can win.

This oldest and most glamorous of American championships may have prepared the stage for its most thrilling finish. Whatever happens Sunday, no table could be better set. The cast of characters is preposterous. Within five shots of the lead are 31 players, including these other bluebloods: Fuzzy Zoeller, Larry Mize, Jose Maria Olazabal, Scott Simpson, Paul Azinger, Craig Stadler, Hale Irwin, Lanny Wadkins and Ian Woosnam.

They'll all go to bed dreaming of the same number: 66. He who shoots it, wins it. Probably, nobody will, even with Medinah playing soft and slow. After all, this day's best score was 68, shot by Strange, Faldo, Nicklaus, Zoeller and three others. Winning score? Try eight-under 280.

The most heartening news here is that reports of Strange's demise have been greatly exaggerated. We're talking about one tough Virginia good ol' boy. "The game is on," he said, grinning wolfishly after birdieing three of the last six holes. "Now, tomorrow is going to be fun. The adrenaline will be going. . . . What drives you is being Open champion . . . I talk about 'my friend' who has gone everywhere with me for two years -- the Curtis Strange who's Open champion and stands beside me. . . . You don't want to let the feeling go. Or you don't want to let go easy. You want to go down swinging."

Strange means that, for two years, he has lived a sort of mythic double life. He's been a sort of temporary athletic deity. He wants that status for one more year. And he wants the enormously increased stature that back-to-back-to-back Opens would confer.

The 35-year-old, who has never won another major title but who has been PGA Tour money champion three times, has been working on a legendary week. On Thursday, he was so worried about his stomach problems and recent weight loss that he sought a doctor, who then examined him in the Medinah clubhouse.

"My wife says I've lost 20 pounds," says the normally lean Strange. "I think it's more like five pounds. It's just {a result of} everything. . . . The doctor told me, 'You're fine.' That relieved me. I asked, 'What can I eat?' He said, 'Anything. Eat it before it eats you.' I feel better, but I'm still going to get checked out next week."

Strange stopped worrying about himself and started worrying about his putting -- and making the cut. First, he switched putters to a "big ugly Zebra." It helped, but when he came to the 14th tee on Friday, he still was in big trouble. One more bogey and he wouldn't make the cut.

"The guy holding the other end of the putter started doing a better job," said Strange, who has played the last 23 holes in six under par.

"I kept plugging along today," said Strange of his third round. "At least I wasn't moping around like I did the first two days. I told myself, 'Give it your best shot. Don't quit.' "

Then, Strange things began to happen. The two-time defending champion posted his five-under-par total and watched as Scott Simpson, at nine under par, and a half-dozen others who reached eight under, threatened to run away from the pack.

Suddenly, in one windswept hour of carnage at sundown, the breeze came up and all the pretenders went down in flames. In a breathtaking blink this 90th Open went from a warm milk sedative to a black coffee stimulant. Scott Simpson finished his day bogey-triple bogey-bogey. Tim Simpson ended bogey-par-bogey. Woosnam, who'd triple-bogeyed the 17th on Friday, finished his work for the day double bogey-bogey.

Nicklaus became so excited as he watched the ersatz leaders come back to the superstar pack that he practically giggled, saying: "I don't want to wait until tomorrow. I want to play."

Could a 50-year-old really win the Open? "I think that would be terrific," he said.

As darkness arrived, so did thunder, promising more rain to keep Medinah soft and scorchable. And, for Sunday, more nefarious winds are predicted by dusk.

For two days, the throngs here around Lake Kadijah have seemed to will two players to the fore, begging them not to fade when their causes seemed lost -- Strange and Nicklaus. Now, both are in the thick of it. Nicklaus knows the feeling of being carried by the collective will. It's new to Strange and wonderful beyond his dreams.

"I will never forget what this week has been like," he said. "Far and away more than I expected. Not just the fans, either, although they've been amazing. But members and other players. You have no idea. So many players -- and guys who are not necessarily my best friends -- come up to me and say, 'If I don't do it, play good.' "

Of course, no one would say, "Win three U.S. Opens in a row." That would not only be a jinx but completely impossible. As impossible as a 50-year-old winning his fifth Open.

Yet, at this moment, both long shots are on the board. And the odds aren't as long as they seem. Because the top six names on the U.S. Open scoreboard may well be written in invisible ink.