MEDINAH, ILL., JUNE 16 -- All the ghosts arrived at the U.S. Open this afternoon. Arnold Palmer was here blowing a seven-shot lead at Olympic, and so were Frank Beard, T.C. Chen and everyone else who has discovered that life atop this peculiar leader board leads to nervous hands and bad tempers, crooked drives and yipped putts.

The second-round leaders of the U.S. Open didn't stumble on Medinah Country Club's No. 3 course so much as they were devoured by it. When dusk had settled, the third-round lead was shared by a couple of unheralded golfers who, by their own honest admissions, didn't expect to be here.

Billy Ray Brown and Mike Donald got in with seven-under-par 209s. Brown got there with a three-under 69, Donald with a 72. Mark Brooks, Jeff Sluman, second-round leader Tim Simpson and Larry Nelson were a stroke back.

Yet it probably wasn't a day of new leaders so much as it was one of old faces doing familiar things. Thirty-one players are within five shots of the leaders and this was the day that Curtis Strange, Nick Faldo and, yes, Jack Nicklaus charged into contention.

Strange, seeking to become the first man in 85 years to win three straight Opens, shot a 68 to move within three strokes of the lead. Nicklaus and Faldo also shot 68s. Nicklaus trails by four, Faldo by three.

"I'm in a good position," Strange said. "I really have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I'm in contention and tomorrow I can go out and give it a shot. It's amazing the changes you can go through in this game. At least I wasn't out there moping around like I was Thursday."

He trailed Tom Kite by three shots entering last year's final day, and since shooting a 73 on Thursday, has come back with 70 and 68.

Nicklaus has put together rounds of 71-74-68 and showed some of the old magic today when he was, as always, surrounded by the largest galleries. He knocked in a 10-foot putt to birdie the 412-yard No. 3, a 20-footer to birdie the 429-yard ninth, a six-footer on the 402-yard 11th and an eight-footer at the 199-yard 13th.

He stalked down the fairway with that familiar quick stride and saluted the crowd with a hard, confident wave. His day was impressive, but it came within an eyelash of spectacular; he barely missed five long putts that might have turned this tournament upside down.

Nevertheless, he enters Sunday's final round with a legitimate shot at winning his first Open in 10 years.

"I think I have a chance of winning," he said. "I'm three under par and could look at five under {for the round} tomorrow. If I could get to 10 or 11 under, it would be a pretty good score."

After treating this like another Milwaukee Open, players discovered that the real U.S. Open began today. A record 39 players broke par on Thursday, followed by a whopping 47 on Friday. Only 24 made it today.

Some good golfers have remembered Ben Hogan's theory about the Open -- "You don't have to catch the leaders because they'll come back to you."

One of those was Tim Simpson, who stumbled badly. He went from opening rounds of 66 and 69 to a 75 that dropped him a shot off the lead. Jeff Sluman, who was within a stroke of Simpson when play began today, shot 74 and also is a stroke back. Simpson began the day at nine-under, but two strokes had been shaved off that leading total by the time the sun went down, making this a truly wide-open affair.

For a long time today, it looked as if Scott Simpson was taking charge. He ripped off five birdies in the first seven holes and walked onto the 16th tee nine under par.

Later, he would remember that the wind began to pick up about that time and that Medinah began to play a lot like it had in Tuesday's torturous practice round.

Simpson came apart. He bogeyed the 426-yard 16th hole and the 440-yard 18th. In between, he had the 168-yard No. 17, and triple-bogeyed it, hitting a 7-iron into the back trap, needing two shots to get out, then overshooting the green and three-putting.

From a two-stroke lead, he walked off the course with a 73, and although his 212 trails Brown and Donald by only three, he looked like a man with a Sunday appointment with a hanging judge.

"This is not real blood on me," he said, attempting a joke that fell as flat as some of his iron shots. "I feel beat down. I felt really good out there for a while, but . . . this is really disappointing. I'm just going to get out of here now and try to focus on the positive things that happened out there. I did hit some good shots."

Brown, 27, is playing his first U.S. Open. An NCAA champion at the University of Houston, he has missed the cut three times in PGA Tour events, and in 1989 after tying for second in the Kemper Open, celebrated so late he overslept and missed his Open qualifying tournament.

This year he tied for seventh at the Kemper, and he and his wife, Cindy, celebrated with a quiet evening in their hotel room. He went to Woodmont Country Club in Rockville the next morning and shot even-par 144 to qualify.

He's a story. His dad played tackle for the Oakland Raiders, his brother played center for the St. Louis Cardinals. He has wide eyes, a Texas twang and a quick laugh.

He would be the most unlikely of Open champions but doesn't expect to be. After shooting 69 today, he candidly admitted: "To tell you the truth, I never expected to be in this position. I'm trying to enjoy the moment. I'm not going to lie to you -- I'm feeling the heat of leading the Open already. When I looked up and saw I had the lead, I could hardly breathe out there."

Donald, 34, is older than Brown and therefore not as wide-eyed. He missed the Open cut in 1989, failed to qualify in 1988, missed the cut in 1987 and finished 34th in 1984 after shooting an opening-round 68.

He accepted his spot atop the tournament with nothing more than a shrug, saying: "I just kind of went along out there and looked up and found myself on top. I three-putted Number 12 and kind of kicked myself in the butt. I reminded myself this was the U.S. Open and that it hasn't really even begun yet. I played pretty well after that and the rest of the field played like it was the U.S. Open. A lot of guys backed off and my position turned out pretty good."

His three-day scorecard is 67-70-72, and today he walked away with a pair of birdies and a pair of bogeys.

"I was just trying to stay close," he said. "The way the other guys are playing, I'm still in good shape."

He seemed genuinely unconcerned by whatever Sunday might bring. He knows that even though he and Brown will tee off last, the galleries and attention will be focused in front of him, on Strange and Nicklaus and Faldo. He leads the Open and he gets a free ride.

Strange put himself in a position to win with birdies on three of the final six holes. One was a fast-breaking 20-footer on 17 that sent him off the green with a fist thrust high.

"I'll tell you, I felt like I was back in the U.S. Open after that," he said. "I felt great. I felt like I could have played another 18 holes. From struggling to make the cut to this kind of round . . . . A low round tomorrow might scare some people, {and I might} get a handshake or something."