Maybe Jose Maria Olazabal wasn't so dumb, after all. Perhaps he knew what he was doing when he broke a bone in his hand by punching a hotel room wall in a rage after the first round of the U.S. Open. Had he glimpsed the future? What is a few weeks in a cast if it means you can escape the public mortification of playing Pinehurst No. 2 this weekend?

After shooting a 77 Saturday in the third round of the U.S. Open, John Cook said, "I made 12 birdies and one bogey."

How so, John?

"I played this as a par 88," said the 40-year-old veteran. "This isn't like any golf course we've ever played."

"I have been asked many times what's the hardest golf course I've ever played," said defending Open champ Lee Janzen after shooting 76 -- exactly the scoring average for the field. "Now I have the answer."

"Borderline sadistic," said Scott Verplank. "Unbelievably tough."

"It's like Augusta [National] with three-inch rough. But this makes Augusta look tame," said Tom Lehman. "If it had stayed [sunny and] bright, you would have seen the highest scores in the history of the U.S. Open."

It was close anyway, even with a mist moistening the course in the afternoon. Sunday may be sunny. And breezy. Boys, bring a straight razor, a rope and some cyanide. Don't let Pinehurst No. 2 take you alive.

At the moment, every player on the leader board probably envies Phil Mickelson. At least he's got a beeper that might go off, summoning him to his pregnant wife's side. What reprieve can save the rest of the field?

The last time the Open was won with an over-par total was 1978, when Andy North was 1 over at Cherry Hills. Get ready for some history. At the moment, Payne Stewart (72) is 1 under par and Phil Mickelson (73) is even par, while Tiger Woods (72) and Tim Herron (70) are 1 over. That is a dream leader board. But with Sunday-at-the-Open pressure, plus a drier, faster course to contend with, the final round may be a nightmare.

The Sunday pin placements have already been set. "I saw the dots [marking the spots]," said Woods, rolling his eyes. "Oh, Lordy."

Even if you've never watched a golf tournament, see this one on Sunday. Even if you're into NASCAR or the World Wrestling Federation -- no, especially if you're into racing or mock mayhem -- be sure to watch. You'll feel right at home. Trying to hold these greens, even with a pitching wedge in your paws, is like flying into Turn 2 at the Brickyard at 300 mph. You're not going to stay on the track. The chip shots through a sea of humps and bumps are tougher than Goldberg and twice as ugly.

The only way to hold these greens would be to put gum on your ball. What are you playing, Tiger? "Oh, a Doublemint 2." How about you, Payne? Still using that old Wrigley's Spearmint 1?

Normally, the greatest players in the world despise this annual public flogging at the hands of the U.S. Golf Association. They endure it for the glory. But, off the record, plenty think the whole endeavor is semi-goofy -- a capricious endurance contest with no survivors and, too often, a dubious champion.

The opposite is true here. This may be the ultimate test of golf shots and golf will. On the tee, a fabulous drive is rewarded -- the longer the better, so long as it's straight. Tiger is crushing 'em 330 yards. So, power is rewarded.

Then, a perfect iron shot is required to a microscopic target. The average green here is 5,000 square feet. But what is the effective landing area?

"On most holes, if you want a decent birdie putt, two yards by two yards -- and with the correct spin," said Woods. So, on greens the size of mansions, the target areas are the size of a shower stall. That's No. 2.

Just to stay on any part of the green, you must hit an area smaller than the roof of a school bus. If you don't, you're down in a deep swale or bunker. On Friday, Greg Norman "hit" 12 greens but only two balls stayed there. That's why genius-level iron players such as Duval and Stewart thrive here.

Even if you miss greens, you still have hope. Again, greatness is required, but also will be rewarded. That's why Mickelson, the Magician, stands second. "You'll end up in places you never thought you'd be," said Woods. "But there are a plethora of shots you can play. You can make pars. The players are loving the challenge."

The Marquis de Sade never gave so many testimonials to pain. "The course is set up perfectly," said Lehman after it ate his lunch. "It's very fair," said Janzen. "[Although] on a 230-yard hole [No. 6], if you hit it two feet left of the hole and it rolls off the green, I think it's a little demanding."

A little demanding? Pro golfers are often painted as pampered whiners. Perhaps this Open shows that, given a fair test, there's no limit to the challenge that they'll relish. Stewart, Mickelson and Woods in particular seemed exhilarated after making more than 20 par saves among them.

"It's a lot of fun," said Woods, who righted himself splendidly after a double bogey-bogey start. "I'm nervous, but I love the pressure."

Stewart may prove to be Woods's toughest foe. At 42, he relishes making a stand against the three best under-30 players in America -- Duval, 27, Woods, 23, and Mickelson, 29. Stewart has been in the Open heat so often in the '90s, leading after three rounds three times, that he now seems as immune to nerves as a merely excellent, but not great, player can be. "Tomorrow will test it all -- mental and physical," said Stewart, who deeply wants to atone for a five-shot Open lead that evaporated last year over the final 17 holes.

Actually, Olazabal would probably love to be here, too -- savoring this exquisite agony. On Sunday, there will be war stories for a lifetime around every dogleg. In the end, however, only one man will find them worth retelling. For the losers, their composure and self-confidence strained to the limit, there will only be that dismal return to the hotel room where all the dark memories of Open Sunday on Pinehurst No. 2 will await them.

That's when they should remember Olazabal.

"It sounds like he mis-clubbed himself," said Norman. "Remember, it's always smarter to kick than to punch."

CAPTION: David Duval tries to wriggle out of a bunker on No. 3 while playing partner Payne Stewart waits on the green.