Despite conditions variously described as horrific, nearly impossible and downright frightening, Payne Stewart forged ahead by moving backward in the third round of the 99th U.S. Open. He accepted the basic premise that par, and even the occasional bogey, was his best friend today at Pinehurst No. 2.

Stewart, the 1991 Open champion wearing plus-fours and a matching cap in Carolina blue, was in a familiar position despite shooting a 2-over 72 that left him at 1-under 209 in an event that clearly brings out the best in him. He is leading the Open after three rounds for the third time in the 1990s; he was second after 54 holes in 1993.

Stewart holds a one-shot lead over Phil Mickelson, a co-leader after 36 holes who also birdied the 446-yard 18th with a five-foot putt for 73 and even-par 210. A few minutes later, Stewart, playing right behind him, curled in his own 15-footer to take the outright lead and become the only player under par after three rounds.

"I'm pleased with the way I dealt with everything today," Stewart said. "I got on the bogey train at 8, 9 and 10, and then I got off. I don't think many people will go around hitting 18 greens Sunday. The person who's chipping and putting best will win the U.S. Open."

Still anticipating the birth of his first child at the end of the month, Mickelson will step to the first tee on Sunday -- Father's Day -- with a solid chance to win his first major championship. He held a two-shot lead over Stewart at the turn before shooting 3-over 38 on the back nine. Mickelson, 29, still insists he is prepared to depart the premises if his beeper goes off, signaling that his wife, Amy, is about to go into labor.

Stewart, 42, has a two-shot advantage over Tiger Woods and steady Tim Herron. Woods found himself 3 over for the day after his first two holes but held on for a 72 -- 211. Herron shot 70 to stay where he started, also at 1 over.

Steve Stricker, runner-up at the PGA Championship last year, came out smoking with a 40-foot birdie putt at No. 2 and an eagle at the 335-yard No. 3 out of a fairway bunker to shoot the only sub-par round of the day. Stricker's 69 -- 212 left him in a three-way tie with David Duval and Vijay Singh, three shots behind Stewart.

Duval began the day holding a share of the lead at 3 under, but lost five shots to par on his first eight holes. He then ran off 10 straight pars for a 75 -- 212. Singh (73) was 1 under through 14 holes until three straight bogeys sent him in the wrong direction.

The Open is supposed to be the supreme test of American golf, but 1978 marked the last time the title was won with a score over par. Andy North shot 1-over 285 at Cherry Hills in Colorado, and Lee Janzen needed a brilliant final-round 68 to get to even-par 280 last year at Olympic Club in San Francisco. He won by a shot over Stewart.

The wind kicked up considerably for the early starters, died down just as the leaders were teeing off, then picked up again with occasional spitting rain in the late afternoon as they tried to maneuver around even more difficult pin placements on even firmer, faster greens than they had seen the day before.

This was an afternoon when the leaders were trying to save par and their own dignity every time they swung a club. Earlier, some followers had failed miserably. Ted Tryba, who won the PGA Tour event in Memphis six days ago, had an 82. U.S. Amateur champion Hank Kuehne, who will turn pro Monday, shot 81. Tom Kite posted 80, John Daly 81 and Larry Mize 84, his worst round in 16 Opens.

"I've been asked many times what's the hardest golf course I've ever played," said defending champion Janzen, in with a 76 and 13 over. "Now I have the answer."

The leaders found that out the hardest way possible.

There was Woods, at the first hole, hitting his bunker shot across the green, knocking a poor chip with a 3-wood to 10 feet and missing the bogey putt for a dispiriting double bogey. He followed with another weak 3-wood chip from off the green at No. 2, leaving a 15-footer for par. He missed and was 3 over after two holes and five off the lead.

Woods collected himself, made birdie at the 610-yard No. 4 with a chip to two feet, then ran off nine straight pars. He bogeyed No. 14 with a drive into the trees that forced him to chip out to the fairway, though he nearly saved par until his 30-foot putt lipped out. He hit a 5-iron to four feet at the 202-yard 15th for a birdie and parred in.

"I love it," he said. "I love playing in the most intense pressure. How can you not? This is what we play for. You have to be so committed to a shot and be so mentally exact that it takes a lot of effort. I am nervous, there's no doubt about that. But it's a lot of fun."

There was Duval, ranked No. 1 in the world and tied for the 36-hole lead, making an uncharacteristic double-bogey 6 at the 482-yard fifth, the toughest hole on the course. His second shot hit the putting surface but rolled down the slope into deep rough. From there, an attempted flop shot failed, squirting off to the right of the flag, landing 20 feet away then rolling down into the fringe on the other side of the green. His chip stopped five feet from the hole, but he lipped out the putt and went back to even for the tournament.

There was some heroic play from slightly back in the pack by Stricker, who like Duval and Herron is looking for his first major. His eagle came on an 8-iron shot from a bunker at No. 3. He was 136 yards away and his shot hit to the right of the pin, then spun sideways about eight feet and into the cup.

"I didn't see it go in," Stricker said. "I just heard the people going crazy."

Stewart got the same sort of reaction when he birdied the 18th. Never mind the three straight bogeys from Nos. 8 through 10. He then had seven straight pars before that final 15-footer, and said later he was proud of himself for not blowing sky-high.

"I love this golf tournament," he said. "I enjoy playing golf when par gets its reward no matter how you make it. It's the mind-set I get when I come to this tournament. My adrenaline is flowing more, my concentration is better. All those things have gotten me to where I am right now."

IN THE HUNT

Tim Herron+1

Steve Stricker+2

Vijay Singh+2

David Duval+2

Billy Mayfair+3

Jeff Maggert+4

Ross's Washington Influence

Before his death in 1948, Donald Ross designed more than 400 golf courses, including Pinehurst No. 2, site of this week's U.S. Open. Ross courses in the Washington area, with the year of their design:

Course Year Holes Site

Bannockburn G.C. 1924 18* Glen Echo

Chevy Chase G.C. 1915 18 Chevy Chase

Congressional C.C. 1930 18 Bethesda

Indian Spring C.C. 1922 18* Laurel

Prince George's C.C. 1921 18* Landover

Course Year Holes Site

Silver Spring G.C. 1921 18* Silver Spring

Washington Golf & C.C. 1915 18 Arlington

Westwood G.C. 1926 18* Vienna

Woodberry Forest G.C. 1910 9 Woodberry Forest

*Courses no longer exist or do not exist with Ross's original design.

SOURCE: A Directory of Golf Courses Designed by Donald Ross, U.S. Golf Association

Driving Distance

Payne Stewart262.5 yards

Phil Mickelson265.0 yards

Tim Herron266.0 yards

Tiger Woods282.5 yards

Fairways Hit

Payne Stewart12

Phil Mickelson8

Tim Herron13

Tiger Woods10

Sand Saves

Payne Stewart1 of 2

Phil Mickelson1 of 3

Tim Herron1 of 1

Tiger Woods2 of 2

Greens in Regulation

Payne Stewart11

Phil Mickelson8

Tim Herron12

Tiger Woods10

Putts

Payne Stewart31

Phil Mickelson28

Tim Herron30

Tiger Woods29

Birdies

Payne Stewart2

Phil Mickelson2

Tim Herron1

Tiger Woods2

Pars

Payne Stewart12

Phil Mickelson11

Tim Herron16

Tiger Woods13

Bogeys

Payne Stewart4

Phil Mickelson5

Tim Herron1

Tiger Woods2

CAPTION: Payne Stewart, the '91 U.S. Open champion, has taken the lead to final round three times in the '90s.

CAPTION: Phil Mickelson blasts out of a sand trap on the 17th hole. The left-hander shot 73 on Day 3 of the U.S. Open and is one shot behind Payne Stewart.(Photo ran in an earlier edition)

CAPTION: Golf course architect Donald Ross