BIRMINGHAM, AUG. 11 -- Wayne Grady's meager even-par turned out to be a significant score in the PGA Championship today. While Nick Faldo muddied himself in a creek bottom and Greg Norman's chances drowned in the ponds, Grady held a two-stroke lead after this misadventure of a third round at Shoal Creek.

Some of the events were laughable, some of them appalling, and very few of them were laudable on the grudging par-72 designed by Jack Nicklaus. Monstrous rough and severe conditions reduced the field to trembling uncertainty, and as the biggest names in golf came apart, Australia's Grady strained for every stroke with three birdies to three bogeys for a 54-hole total of 5-under 211. He was trailed by defending champion Payne Stewart (70) and Fred Couples (73), at 213. "The golf course has done that," said Grady, who led by one starting the day. "It's eliminated a lot of guys from winning the tournament."

There is a long, terrible sameness to 7,145-yard Shoal Creek. Lacking any distinguishing features to recommend it, tournament officials grew the grass bordering the fairways long, let the greens harden to a wooden finish, and the result has been a frenzy of disaster.

Faldo of Britain, the finest golfer in the world, suffered an 80 scarred by a double and triple bogey for 226. Norman twice struck iron shots into lagoons for consecutive double bogeys and a 76 for 222. Larry Mize was tied for second with Stewart and Couples as he approached the par-4 18th, where he took a triple bogey by hooking his second shot into a greenside pond. His 76 put him at even-par 216.

There were just two rounds in the 60s, and one of them belonged to Gil Morgan, the winner of the Kemper Open whose morning 65 is the lowest of the tournament by two shots. With it, he suddenly appeared in contention at 214, and it was all the more significant in light of the fact that of the six players within five strokes of the lead, only two others shot below par today. They were Stewart and Loren Roberts, whose 70 tied him with Morgan.

Wildly inconsistent meanderings like Couples' were not unusual. He swapped five bogeys with four birdies, as he hit just eight greens. The only thing that preserved him was his streaky putter, saving pars with long putts of every description.

"I'd just like to say the course was very hard and I got lucky," he said.

It took virtually unplayable conditions to make Faldo appear so fallible. The Englishman's attempt to become the first man since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win three of golf's four major championships in one season ended with his highest round of the year by two strokes.

His performance in majors, which include the Masters, U.S. and British Opens and PGA, had been impeccable until this tournament, finishing among the top four in eight of the last 13 since 1987. In addition to his victories in the Masters and British Open this year, he lipped out a short putt on the last hole of the U.S. Open to miss a playoff with Mike Donald and eventual champion Hale Irwin.

"I've still had a great year," he said. "This doesn't take anything away. It just wasn't my week."

Faldo's career scores were not available, but this much was certain: Research back to 1977 showed no round this poor in a major. He could not remember his last 80 in any tournament.

"Not since I got out of nappies {diapers} and into shorts," he said.

Faldo double-bogeyed the par-4 fourth when he drove into the rough, chopped 80 yards into the fairway, chipped to the green, and then three-putted from 25 feet. "After that my concentration was zero," he said. "I was just hitting it and enjoying the view." His tournament effectively ended on the 10th hole, a par-4 of 421-yards, when he took triple bogey. His 5-iron approach strayed into a ravine to the right of the green, and he tried to play it out, spraying himself with mud to no avail.

"I ruined my label as best-dressed golfer of the year," he said. "It was sitting in the mud and I thought I could play it, so I gave it a splat."

Faldo placed equal blame on the course. If he was almost cheerful as he left the 18th, unable to alter events, he was also somewhat disgusted. He said he has not decided whether to play at all over the next few weeks. "I've had enough brain damage for August," he said.

Norman began the round with one of his trademark charges, working his way from 2 over to even through eight holes. But he then took his two calamitous double bogeys at the ninth and 10th holes, a pair of longish par-4s where he misjudged irons over the ponds. Then he made three straight bogeys at 13, 14 and 15.

"I thought I had a chance until the ninth, and then I go double, double," he said. "I'm just going to try to shrug this week off."

That some advantage could be taken of Shoal Creek was proved by Morgan, who attacked the fairways with his driver and the greens with iron shots thrust right at the flagsticks. He made eight birdies. The proper strategy of dealing with the rough has been much argued this week: Most players have chosen safe irons on the tees, but that can leave them with extremely difficult approach shots on a course of tiresome length.

Morgan went at it relentlessly as he birdied each of the four par-5s, and the last two holes in a row. He made the 530-yard 17th in two with a soaring 2-iron and two-putted from 50 feet. At the 446-yard, par-4 18th, he slid a 5-iron to 12 feet.

"I just played as well as I can play, probably," he said.

Morgan has enjoyed a seven-shot improvement against par since Thursday's opening 77. His slow start was largely the result of a five-week sabbatical that ended just before the tournament began. "I was rusty," he said. Troubled by shoulder problems, the 43-year-old, non-practicing optometrist had not won a tournament since 1983 until he captured the Kemper in June, and he has enjoyed resurgence ever since.

But no one has ever come from so far back to win the PGA. He and Roberts must be considered less than favorites in Sunday's final round. Roberts is a 35-year-old who has yet to win a tournament. He passed through the PGA Tour qualifying school five times before he finally established himself in 1987. But he has finished in the top 10 in each of his last four events, and today hit every fairway.

Grady will also be regarded with some skepticism. He has finished second an agonizing 29 times in his career to four victories. One of those runner-up performances came in last year's British Open, when he lost a playoff to Mark Calcavecchia. He is known for his deadly if short-hitting accuracy off the tee -- using his driver 13 times today with few ill effects -- and his composed putting.

Shoal Creek has made the mildest of players come unglued this week, witness Faldo. In the sweat and glare of a final round, the more difficult task may be to hold a lead, partcicularly with that dreaded rough trying the nerves on every tee. "It will eat you up," Grady said. "It's the hardest driving course we've ever played." He added that the easier job may be coming from behind.

"I'm happy to shoot 72, and I'm happy to have a two-shot lead," he said. "If I can get it under par tomorrow, I think I will be hard to beat."