Rosie Jones elevated stagnation to a potentially lucrative art form yesterday at the LPGA Championship.

She matched her precise first-round performance with 15 pars and two birdies, compensating for a bogey on what has become a personal nightmare at the 16th hole. The 1-under-par 70 gave her a 4-under 209 for three days and a two-shot lead over Cathy Johnston entering today's final round. At stake is the prestige of what would be the 30-year-old Jones's first major title in eight years as a pro, and the $150,000 winner's share of an LPGA-record $1 million purse.

Using two days of virtually flawless tee-to-green golf and one that deviated wildly from that pattern, Jones basically has run in place while would-be challengers alternately flourish and flounder around her on the Bethesda Country Club's menacing course. Only on Friday, in the second round, did she break from her consistent form of textbook pars with an occasional birdie or bogey. That afternoon she took a quadruple bogey on the par-3 16th, but still managed to finish the round basically where she started it.

"I feel good," Jones said. "I'm in a great position. . . . I've been dreaming about this and working on this for 15, 18 years. It means a lot. Right now, it means everything in the world to me."

Sue Ertl became the latest leader to self-destruct and pave the way for Jones. Ertl, who began yesterday 5 under par, bogeyed her first three holes en route to a 79 that left her 3 over for 54 holes. Only four players are below par as Bethesda's strangling rough continues to overmatch those unable to equal Jones's unerring ways.

Johnston's 71 yesterday included some scrambling, as her three birdies were offset by three bogeys. She scurried to save par at the 16th, but after she pulled to one shot of Jones at 3 under, a missed four-footer at No. 18 sent her to the clubhouse on an unsavory note.

"I should have parred 18," said Johnston, whose only career victory came in a major, this year's du Maurier Classic. "The other bogeys I didn't really mind. . . . The course played easier for me because I kept the ball in the fairway more than I had been.

"Being two strokes back, that's fine with me. Rosie is really consistent. She keeps the ball in the fairway. I think I'll have to chase her. I don't think she'll come back down to me," Johnston said.

First-round leader Chris Johnson and Dawn Coe each shot 68 yesterday to share third place at 212. Johnson had shot 77 on Friday. Cindy Figg-Currier, who began the day tied with Johnston and one shot behind Jones, finished with 73 and fell into a fifth-place tie with Deb Richard at 213.

Defending champion Nancy Lopez rallied for her second straight 70, those on the heels of a disastrous first-day 78. Lopez eagled No. 12 for the second consecutive day, this time with a 30-foot putt. The three-time LPGA Championship winner then nailed a 30-footer for a birdie at the 18th hole, giving her a remote chance of winning if those above her falter.

She'll begin nine shots off the lead, one behind Betsy King, who is seeking her third major title this year. King continued her weeklong sluggishness yesterday with a 75, confessing afterward her swing in recent weeks is far from the stroke of her record-breaking 1989, when she won more than a half-million dollars. Yet she rallied from an 11-stroke deficit to win the U.S. Women's Open over Patty Sheehan two weeks ago, and she insisted she'll never consider herself out of a tournament again.

Among others seemingly capable of making a Sunday run, Sheehan stands at 216, Pat Bradley at 215 and Beth Daniel at 214. But Sheehan, the tour's leading money-winner and hottest player with a streak of six straight first- or second-place finishes, seems fatigued after a string of three majors in five weeks and back-to-back close defeats.

Bradley has faltered this week each time she seemed primed for an assault on the leader board, and Daniel never has pulled things together at the course where she won the Greater Washington Open last year. Yet the leaders seem wary of Daniel's ability to regroup, especially with the prospect of a final round in which she has nothing to lose.

"One or two players may go out {today} and shoot a low score because they're not worried so much," Johnston said. "Maybe someone like Beth Daniel can go out and shoot a 67, especially when she can be aggressive and shoot for the pin."

Jones said she won't change her approach. Her three rounds have produced 43 pars and nine birdies in 54 holes. She has played the 16th hole at 5 over and the rest of the course at 9 under. Upon leaving No. 16 yesterday, she feigned pulling the pin from a hand grenade and tossing it upon the nerve-wracking green and its accompanying bunkers.

"I gave away five shots on one hole, so yeah, it kind of ticks me off," Jones said. "But then, everyone here probably could say the same thing about one hole or another. . . . One bogey and one quad{ruple bogey}, that's playing some damn good golf. That's solid.

"This golf course will beat me before anyone beats me. There's going to be players out there {today} who shoot 66. {But} I'm not going to change my game plan, and hopefully whatever I shoot will be good enough to win."

Jones varied from her formula on Friday during an uneven outing that saw her fire five birdies but give back all except one of them on 16. But she returned to steady, unspectacular form yesterday, a mode that has put her within a day of the mantlepiece she covets for a career that has placed her tantalizingly on the fringe of the game's elite.

Jones has been close to winning majors before, most notably at the Open in 1984, when she bogeyed the final hole and lost by a stroke. She said earlier this week she wouldn't rest easily with the five-stroke lead she once enjoyed during the second round. Asked yesterday how she felt about a two-shot advantage, she explained she hadn't slept well all week anyway and added, "It's better than being two shots behind."

Jones began the day with 11 straight pars while her playing partners, Figg-Currier and Ertl, were crumbling. She birdied Nos. 12 and 15 to move to 5 under, then began the dreaded 16 by hooking her tee shot slightly. From the rough to the left of the green, she flubbed a chip, then missed a 20-footer for par before sinking a two-footer coming back.

"I feel like I'm way ahead of myself on that hole now," she said. "Who knows, maybe I'll get a hole-in-one" today.