Tom Kite played in the first Kemper Open at Congressional Country Club in 1980, tying for 62nd place and cashing a check for $848. The stakes will be considerably higher today for the 55-year-old Texan as he attempts to become the oldest player, by three years, to win a PGA Tour event.

With a rousing third round of 66 that included birdies on three of his last four holes, Kite weathered the withering heat and his far younger challengers to take a one-shot lead in the tightly bunched Booz Allen Classic. A 14-foot birdie putt at the 190-yard 18th hole pushed him one stroke in front of a field that has 21 players within three shots of the lead and 39 within five.

When asked if he was surprised to see Kite atop the leader board, Ernie Els, one of six players tied for second, answered: "Yeah, I think so, I wouldn't lie to you. I think it's wonderful. It's what makes this game so great. You bring a tournament to a golf course like this, an old classic, and experience is a huge factor. Tom obviously is still striking it great and obviously making some putts. I think it's a great story."

Sam Snead won the old Greater Greensboro Open in 1965 at age 52.

Kite, the winner of 19 tour events, has played primarily on the Champions Tour since he became eligible by turning 50. But this year he decided to take advantage of his status as a top 50 career money winner for a full exemption to play the regular tour.

"Awesome three days," said Kite, who has three rounds in the 60s this week and finished at 10-under 203 for 54 holes. "Heck, if this was the Champions Tour [where tournaments are usually 54 holes], they'd be giving me the trophy now."

Kite came to Washington with no inkling he'd be in this lofty position.

He started his week with a major disappointment at Rockville's Woodmont Country Club, where he failed to qualify for the U.S. Open, which he won in 1992 at Pebble Beach. In his last 17 rounds on the PGA Tour this year, he had not been in the 60s, and he had missed the cut in six of his nine starts, ranking 226th on the money list with $20,364.

Some have been critical of Kite's decision to focus more on the PGA Tour than the senior circuit so far, even if he said he does plan to add more Champions Tour events later in the season.

"I was not a factor on the Champions Tour [and] I was not a factor on the PGA Tour, and that was disappointing," Kite said of his 2005 season so far. "It gave a lot of people who thought what I was doing was foolish a lot of ammunition and gave them the right to blast me. I wasn't doing it for them. I was doing it for me."

Kite said he always plays poorly over the first four months of most seasons, but could sense his game has been starting to come around in recent weeks.

"This is why I came back" to the PGA Tour, he said. "This is the only reason I took this little challenge -- to challenge myself and put myself in a position to see what I could do, to see if I had what it takes to contend, to have what it takes to possibly win a golf tournament. Who knows? But needless to say, I'm enjoying the heck out of it and I'll be having a blast out there tomorrow."

He'll be pursued by what probably is the most tightly bunched field of the season.

Australian Stuart Appleby, who made the cut by only two shots, had the biggest move of the day, posting a 6-under 65 to get to 9-under 204, good for a six-way tie for second place on a golf course crammed with thousands of enthusiastic spectators all day. (Tournament officials declined to announce the official attendance.)

Els took something of the scenic route around Congressional, often ambling after his ball in high grass, in the trees and in the sand. He hardly seemed fazed by any of his travails, if only because his short game and his putter almost always came to the rescue in a round of 68. Els's four front-nine birdies pushed him into a tie for the lead at the turn at 10 under, and by the time he was sipping a cool drink in the locker room, he also was in that gang of six that included Englishmen Lee Westwood (69) and Luke Donald (67) and Australians Steve Elkington (69) and Adam Scott (69), the defending Booz Allen champion.

Nine players were at 8-under 205, including first-round leader Matt Gogel (70), 36-hole leader Robert Allenby (72), hard-charging Phil Mickelson (67) and Sergio Garcia (66). Davis Love III (69) and Jim Furyk (70), both major championship winners, were in a group of five players at 7-under 206, just three strokes behind Kite.

"There are a lot of guys, a lot of great players in there; it's anybody's golf tournament," Els said. "You have to stay steady, and it's going to be one of those classics, I guess."

Kite, wearing his signature hat and acknowledging cheers of support from appreciative galleries all week, has been hanging around the lead all week, but finally made his move toward the top in his final four holes.

At the 579-yard 15th, he laid up on his third shot, 106 yards to the green, before hitting a pitching wedge to within three feet of the hole and making the birdie putt. At the 437-yard 16th, his second-shot 7-iron was blocked out slightly to the right, leaving him a tricky 35-foot putt up, over and then down a ridge that bisects the green. The ball died at the edge and dropped down, for what he later described as a "highly improbable" birdie.

He parred the 477-yard 17th, two-putting from about 40 feet, then came to the 190-yard 18th tied for the lead at 9 under.

"I hit a nice 6-iron," he said. "I had perfect yardage there. . . . Just putting right up the saddle there is a pretty easy putt. All I had to do was make sure I hit it solid, and I did. Nice way to finish."

On Sunday, he'll play in the final group with Appleby. Both men have won this tournament before, Kite in the first Kemper Open played at the TPC at Avenel in 1987, and Appleby in 1998.

"I'm just happy to be here, believe me," Kite said. "I'm ecstatic with the position I'm in. Yes it's going to be hard. Yes the scores are jammed. It's going to take somebody -- hopefully me -- but somebody will come out and shoot a good score tomorrow. Needless to say, I'm pleased with where I am, as anybody in my position would be."

Was he also surprised to be leading after three rounds?

"Maybe a little bit, but not a whole lot," he said. "To do what I've done this year, you know I have some confidence in myself. When I play well, I'm good. I'm pretty darned good."

Tom Kite displays his finishing touch on No. 18, showing off the ball he sank for birdie that completed a 5-under-par 66 in his third round at Congressional Country Club.Ernie Els faced an uphill battle all day -- often hitting out of long grass and sand -- but still shot a 3-under-par 68. "You have to stay steady, and it's going to be one of those classics, I guess," he said.Despite missing birdie on No. 6, Phil Mickelson moved within striking distance.Defending champion Adam Scott follows his tee shot on No. 11. His third-round 69 put him in a six-way tie for second place.