PINEHURST, N.C. — Martin Kaymer remains in control at the 114th U.S. Open, finding himself after three rounds in the same position as the first two -- at the top of the leader board with what appears to be a comfortable margin.
But, like every other player Saturday at Pinehurst No. 2, Kaymer was trying his best to hold on. And not just to his lead.
"I didn't play as good as the first two days, but I kept it together," Kaymer said. "Two-over par is not as bad as it looked on the scoreboard."
On a day when Pinehurst and its Donald Ross-designed greens played to their diabolical best, Kaymer made a closing birdie at the final hole to shoot 72 and finish at8-under 202. That gave him a five-shot lead -- one fewer than when the round began -- heading into the final round today.
After making just one bogey in the first two rounds when he set a 36-hole scoring record, Kaymer made five bogeys in the third round. But he helped offset the damage with a 5-foot eagle at the par-5 fifth and a closing 10-foot birdie at No. 18.
It was the only birdie made by Kaymer, who made 11 in the first two rounds.
"The USGA put the pins in very, very tough positions," Kaymer said. "The golf course became very, very tough. At 18, that was probably the easiest position and I took care of it."
Kaymer, who recently won The Players Championship, will be seeking his second major title after winning the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. He also will try to become the eighth player to lead wire-to-wire in a U.S. Open.
"I'm looking forward to see how I feel and how I react to everything," Kaymer said. "I can lead by seven or eight shots after nine holes or I can be all square. It will be interesting to see."
The only players to better par in the third round were Rickie Fowler and Erik Compton, who tied for the low round (67) on a day when Pinehurst No. 2 got nastier as the day wore on. That earned them a share of second place at 3-under 207.
The previous time only two players bettered par in the third round was in the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont.
Only six players are under par after three rounds -- seven fewer than when the day began. The others are Dustin Johnson (70) and Henrik Stenson (70), who are tied at 208; and Brandt Snedeker (72), who is at 209.
"I look at it as similar to what Bubba was doing at the Masters," said Fowler, who has only one PGA Tour victory. "He was so far out in front that you can't focus on him. If [Kaymer] goes out and posts double digits, it's going to be impossible for us to catch him. It's like a second tournament going on. See what Martin does."
Kaymer didn't exactly start with the same flawless manner he displayed the first two days, making a bogey on the second hole from a horrid lie in the waste area. It was Kaymer's first bogey since the seventh hole in the first round.
Then, after missing a 7-foot birdie putt at No. 3, he yanked his tee shot at the 542-yard, par-4 fourth into the transition area and had to take an unplayable lie, costing him a penalty shot. Kaymer, though, managed to get away with a bogey -- he made a 12-footer to do so -- dropping his lead to five.
But, as he has done since the start of the tournament, Kaymer gained both shots back in a hurry when he made a 5-foot putt for eagle at the par-5 fifth -- hitting what appeared to be a spectacular shot from 202 yards in the waste area that bounced on the front edge of the green and rolled to the pin.
Kaymer called it lucky.
"It was an OK shot, but it was not that great," Kaymer said. "It just got lucky because the front of the slope killed the flight a little bit and it released to the hole."
Kaymer did not have the same steady hand he did in the first two rounds when he set the U.S. Open 36-hole scoring record with 10-under 130. For example, after he made eagle to get back to 10 under, he hit his first putt at the par-3 sixth off the green, leading to his third bogey in six holes.
Still, nobody could make a run at him because the course played a lot more difficult in the third round. Four players shot 80 or higher, headed by Toru Taniguchi's 88, and the stroke average for the round was 73.8 -- one shot higher than the second (72.8).
"Pins were very difficult," said Phil Mickelson, whose attempt to finally win a U.S. Open and become the sixth player to complete golf's Grand Slam unofficially ended after he shot 72 to finish at 5-over 215. "The pins are so close to the edges that if it went sometimes 4-6 feet on that one side, it was down in a bad spot. It was a tough day to try to go low."
Western Pennsylvania native Brendon Todd, who began the day six shots from the lead and played in the final pairing with Kaymer, quickly faded from contention, thanks to a balky putter.
Todd, who lived in McMurray until he was 11, three-putted for bogey four times in the first six holes. He offset one of those gaffes with a two-putt birdie at the par-5 fifth, then gave that back -- and more -- when he drove into the scruffy grass and made double bogey at the reachable 315-yard seventh.
That led to a 79, dropping the reigning Byron Nelson Classic winner to 215, 13 shots back.
"The pins were very aggressively set [in the third round]," Todd said. "There's no chance to get the ball close when pins are tucked like that. You never get that birdie that will get your momentum back."
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @gerrydulac.