ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Tom Kite rode a string of four birdies in a six-hole stretch into a one-stroke lead Saturday in the weather-plagued third round of the U.S. Open.
The gritty little Texan, who has come so close so often but has yet to win one of world's major tests of golfing greatness, patiently compiled a one-under-par 69 in sunshine and showers on a saturated golf course.
Kite completed three trips over the rain-soaked and weather-damaged East course at the Oak Hill Country Club in 205, five shots under par.
The winner of consecutive titles in the Bay Hill Classic and Players Championship earlier this year, Kite swept in front with his birdie burst in the middle of the round, then had to scramble through trees and traps to hold off Scott Simpson.
Simpson, the soft-spoken man who won the 1987 American national championship, kept pace with a 69 and was one back at 206 going into today's final round.
Curtis Strange, the defending champion and second-round leader, faded back and now faces a major challenge in his attempt to become the first golfer since Ben Hogan in 1951 to successfully defend his title in this event.
Strange did not make a birdie in a 73 that was nine shots higher than the 64 he shot in second-round play. It was his highest score in Open competition in the last three years.
Strange takes a 208 total--three back--into the last 18 holes.
Former U.S. Open winner Larry Nelson, Japanese veteran Mashashi (Jumbo) Ozaki and longshot Jay Don Blake were the only others in the field under par for 54 holes. They were at 209.
Nelson and Ozaki each shot 68 and Blake 72.
Tom Pernice and Mark McCumber were at par 210. Pernice rallied for a 68 and McCumber had a 72.
Jack Nicklaus, 49, who counts four U.S. Open crowns among his record 18 major professional titles, took himself out of it with another 74 that left him at 215.
Masters champion Nick Faldo of England, the man who lost to Strange in a playoff for this title a year ago and was considered a strong contender this time, had a 73 and was at 213.
Spanish star Seve Ballesteros was 76-221.
Kite, who now has three rounds in the 60s in this event, came into the delayed start of the day's play one shot back.
He was two off the pace when he began his birdie burst on the ninth hole. Using his newly adopted cross-handed putting stroke, he ran in a monster putt, 40 or 50 feet, for a birdie.
When the struggling Strange bogeyed the hole after driving into the rough, Kite found himself in a three-way tie for the lead.
But another long birdie putt, perhaps 20 feet, on the 10th put a spring in his step and another birdie, from about 10 feet, on the 12th put him in front alone.
He didn't look back.
He led the rest of the way.
But it wasn't easy. Not at all.
He had to contend with the enormous pressure of the American national championship, a four-man race to the wire, a series of showers, a greatly-delayed starting time and extremely slow play. It required the threesome of Kite, Strange and Simpson more than five hours to complete 18 holes.
The start of play was delayed more than four hours by heavy overnight rains that sent a creek out of its banks and flooded low-lying portions of the golf course.
Fire department equipment was called in to pump the areas flooded by Allen's Creek.
"The most damage I've ever seen on a golf course," said P.J. Boatwright, the veteran executive director of rules and competition for the sponsoring U.S. Golf Assn.
The lengthy delay prompted U.S.G.A. officials to rearrange pairings and starting times.
From twosomes, they went to groups of three and, for the first time in the history of this event, used both the first and 10th tees as starting points.
Both Strange and Kite had trouble starting out.
Strange bogeyed the second after reaching two bunkers. Kite had to scramble for one-putt pars on the second and third, then bogeyed the next two. He missed the green on the fourth and three-putted the fifth.
Kite had to make a save from the wet sand of a bunker on the seventh to stay in touch with the lead, then got his two-shot swing on the ninth.
After the birdies on the 10th and 12th, he hit an approach to within six feet on the 14th and had a three-stroke lead with four holes to go.
But He bogeyed the 15th, three-putting again, and Simpson cut the margin to one with a birdie at 16.
Although he trails only Nicklaus and Tom Watson on the all-time money-winning list, Kite has not received the recognition accorded other players of his era.
The only major drawback to a career that has produced Player of the Year honors, and leading money-winner and the Vardon Trophy -- among others -- is his lack of a victory in any of the game's Big Four events, the Masters, U.S. and British Opens and the PGA.
Perhaps even more frustrating are the frequent occasions when he's challenged and failed in those major tournaments.
He has been a runner-up in two Masters, and led another at one point over the final 18 holes. He also has a second place finish in the British Open, and again led another at one point on the final nine holes.
Now, at 39, he has another opportunity to acquire the one major title he needs to confirm his place in the game.