CARLSBAD — The gallery at the 18th hole at La Costa Country Club gasped Friday when Calvin Peete's 45-foot birdie attempt was wide by about six feet.
They seemed surprised that it missed. And why not? Peete had eight birdies, including four in a row on the 11th through 14th holes, as he took a three-stroke lead over Mark O'Meara after three rounds of the MONY Tournament of Champions.
"That has to be the best putting round I've ever had," said Peete, who one-putted 11 times on the way to an eight-under-par 64 that tied the La Costa course record held by six others, including defending champion Tom Kite.
Peete's total of 17-under-par 199 after three rounds is a La Costa record and ties the Tournament of Champions mark set by Jerry Baker when the tournament was played in Las Vegas in 1960.
When Friday's third round began, there was a battle among Peete, Kite and O'Meara, who were tied for the lead at nine under par.
Now, it's basically a two-player competition between O'Meara and Peete, who in today's final round will be matched together for the second time in the tournament.
"I can't worry about Calvin getting a birdie on every hole," said O'Meara, who shot a 67 Friday. "Three shots is only a lot if Calvin continues to play the way he is playing."
Kite wasn't even talking about the final round. He shot a one-over-par 73, which included a three-over 39 on the back nine, to fall nine strokes back. He bogeyed the 11th, 12th and 15th holes.
Kite is tied with Danny Edwards (69 on Friday) and Phil Blackmar (66) at 208.
O'Meara had six birdies and a bogey for his 67. And he lost three strokes on the lead.
"What can you say?" O'Meara asked. "I played good, but Calvin played great. We've all had those kind of great rounds, and I'm happy for him.
"People said Calvin's putter has held him back, but don't let them fool you. Calvin is straight with his drives, irons and putter. He's the straightest driver on the tour."
Peete's game is the epitome of accuracy, and the warm, wind-free afternoons at La Costa this week have been perfectly suited for that kind of game.
Peete missed only one fairway Friday, a day after missing just two.
"I don't really count those," Peete said. "I count the birdies."
He birdied the second (12-foot putt), sixth (20 feet), ninth, 11th, 12th (30 feet), 13th, 14th (9 feet) and 17th holes.
"I thought I've always been a better putter than I've been given credit for," said Peete, who added that he hasn't really changed his putting style in the last three years. "I'm a good putter. With a little more work and patience, I might be a great putter.
"When I'm putting, I'm concerned with the pace of the greens. The speed of these greens is to my liking. The most important thing is how hard to hit the putt. And 80 to 90% of putting is confidence. The more you make, the more confident you get."
Peete, who with nine victories has won more tournaments than any other tour player in the last four years, has been quite confident since he shot a 64 for the low score in Tuesday's pro-am.
Embarrassed by his disqualification for batting around a moving ball in last year's Tournament of Champions, Peete was determined to make a good showing this year.
"I am very surprised that I've played this well in the first tournament of the season," Peete said. "But I expected to play well because I put in a lot of hours training during the holidays. Then I had the good pro-am. You try not to let a good round in the pro-am give you false confidence, but as far as my putting is concerned, it did give me a lot of confidence."
As is usually the pattern with Peete, his partner outdrove him most of the day. Of course, in this case his partner was Jim Thorpe, one of the big hitters on the tour.
"But I don't think there are three guys I have hit farther than in my years on the tour," Peete said. "And those three guys are no longer on the tour."
While Peete stole the show Friday, 21 golfers shot rounds of par or better.
Scott Verplank, 21, the amateur from Dallas and Oklahoma State, continued to attract a lot of attention and to win over a lot of fans.
Verplank shot a four-under-par 68 (34-34), giving him a nine-under-par 207 for the tournament. He had five birdies, including a 60-foot putt on No. 11, and one bogey.
"These guys are pretty tough," said Verplank, as he shook his head. "I start the day four shots back, hit a 68 and end up eight shots back. The last two days, I've played pretty well."
Another man playing quite well is Miller Barber, who shot his third straight 70. At six-under-par 210, Barber has a five-stroke edge over Arnold Palmer in the Senior Tournament of Champions. Palmer shot a two-under-par 70. Lee Elder's 73 dropped him six strokes back.
"Today, my driver got me in trouble," Barber said, "and I was hitting it to the right all day. But I was putting extremely well."