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Retief leaves others in a Goose chase

PINEHURST, N.C. -- Don't worry about the Sunday crossword puzzle. Put down the Rubik's Cube. Kids, drop the geometry homework. Solve this riddle before dusk Sunday: Figure out a way to deny Retief Goosen his third U.S. Open championship.

The defending champion has played 54 holes at Pinehurst No. 2 in 3-under 207. Goosen leads Jason Gore and Olin Browne by three shots. He birdied three of the last five holes Saturday.

Ideas, anyone?

Siphon the gas out of his courtesy car.

Slip the batteries out of his travel alarm clock.

"Hope you sink all your 30-footers," suggested Michael Campbell, four strokes back at one-over.

"I don't think you're going to catch Retief," said Mark Hensby, who is tied with Campbell. "We've just got to go out there and try and not make any mistakes, and if he plays a good round of golf, he's going to be hard to beat. You don't win two U.S. Opens without being any good, that's for sure. And obviously he's figured out how to win the U.S. Open."

Goosen has figured it out the way Google figured out the Internet. Goosen began Saturday tied for the lead with Gore and Browne and never relinquished it. When he slipped and fell into a tie for the lead with Hensby, Goosen responded with birdies at No. 14 and No. 15. He closed out by holing a 20-foot putt from off the 18th green. That's a 69, his third straight round at par or better, thank you very much.

"His golf swing is so fluid and his rhythm is good, and he does everything so well," said Browne, who made a comeback of his own with birdies on two of the last four holes to shoot 72. "As a matter of fact, he hit a couple of tee shots that were off-line, and when he does I'm trying to look at his swing to try and figure out what went wrong because it doesn't look like he did anything bad."

Appearances to the contrary, Goosen does sweat. He wiped his face with a towel as he walked down the 11th fairway. His orange-striped golf shirt had circles under each arm at the end of the day. He just doesn't play as if he sweats. His golf on the back nine Saturday is proof of that.

He missed the fairway four straight times on the back side. His poor driving led to a bogey at No. 12, which he followed with a double bogey at No. 13. A 3-wood off the tee went into the left rough.

"I tried to hit a sand wedge out to the front edge, and it came out hard and went over the back," Goosen said. "From there I was trying to make five and ended up making six." His third shot rolled past the pin, collected speed, caromed off the fringe like a pinball and rolled off the front of the green.

Goosen had not made a double bogey in the U.S. Open in 112 holes, going back to the eighth hole of the first round at Shinnecock Hills last year.

We have seen a two-time Open champion react to a bad shot at Pinehurst No. 2 by dragging a putter across the green. Here's what Goosen did: He walked up to the pin, stood on the crest of the green, surveyed the shot, reached across his body and scratched the back of his shoulder, took his medicine and walked to the next tee.

"I just tell myself, you know, it was one bad shot and it cost you," Goosen said. "I was sort of more determined after that to have a better finish, try and play solid and see if I could finish with one or two birdies."

A year ago, he followed his double bogey with a birdie. On Saturday, he followed his double bogey with two birdies. The birdie at the 468-yard 14th hole may be remembered as the shot of the tournament. Goosen dumped his drive in a bunker off the right side of the fairway.

"It wasn't an easy shot," Goosen said. "I was stuck in a down, right-to-left sidehill lie. I think I had about 185 yards or so to the flag. ... If I hit it fat, I was in the bunker in front of the green, and if I hit it thin I would hit the bank in front. It came out perfect, a nice little fade [left-to-right] into the middle of the green, about 30 feet, and I holed a good putt."

When he tees up at 3 p.m. Sunday, Goosen will be 18 holes away from history. Only six golfers have repeated as Open champion, the most recent being Curtis Strange (1988-89). The strain of repeating, and trying to three-peat in 1990, took so much out of Strange that he never won again.

"I don't really want to think about it yet," Goosen said. "We know it's going to be tough out there [Sunday] to stay with it."

Yes, fine, but he also said this: "We said at the beginning of the week that we expect nobody to be under par. It's not easy to make up ground on this course. It's easy to lose ground. If I shoot one- or two-over, I can probably win."

There have been times when major champions coughed up leads in the Open. In 1984, third-round leader Hale Irwin shot a 79 in the final round at Winged Foot. It took him six more years to win his third Open. In 1998, third-round leader Payne Stewart, with a four-stroke advantage, shot a 74 in the final round at Olympic in 1998. We all know when and where he won his second Open -- here, one year later.

O.K., just for a moment, let us consider the unthinkable.

"The way I look at it is Johnny Miller shot 63 in the [final round of the 1973] Open at Oakmont," said Phil Mickelson, who is tied for 35th at 8 over, 11 strokes back, "and I'm not going to go into tomorrow's round feeling as though I don't have a shot. I just feel that I can shoot a low score out there, even though I'll have to make 30-, 40-footers to do that. I'm not going to go into the final round defeated."

Oh, Phil, but you are. Goosen with a three-stroke lead is Mom's kisses, McDonald's fries, a FedEx delivery. There's nothing more dependable.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Ivan.Maisel@espn3.com.