CARLSBAD — The gallery around the 18th hole at La Costa Country Club gasped Friday when Calvin Peete's 45-foot birdie attempt was wide by about 6 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 in the third round 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 set a La Costa record and tied the Tournament of Champions mark set by Jerry Barber in 1960, when it was played at Las Vegas.
As Friday's third round began, there was a three-way battle among Peete, Kite and O'Meara, who were tied for the lead at nine-under-par 135.
Now, it's basically a two-player contest 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 Thursday. "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-par 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--and still lost three strokes to the leader.
"What can you say?" O'Meara said. "I played good, but Calvin played great. We've all had those kinds 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 (putting from 12 feet), 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-amateur.
After being 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 playing partner outdrove him most of the day. Of course, in this case it 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 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 one with 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, shoot a 68 and end up eight shots back. The last two days, I've played pretty well."
Another golfer 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 also shot a 70, while Lee Elder had a 73 which 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."