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DEFENDING CHAMP HASN'T GIVEN UP ON RETAINING TITLE

The defending U.S. Open champion hasn't conceded his crown yet, although Hale Irwin admitted Saturday that it will take much more ill wind for him to repeat.

Irwin shot a 2-under par 70 - the only sub-par round among the morning twosomes Saturday - in the thirdround of the 91st U.S. Open at Hazeltine. That put him at even par 216 with 18 holes to play.

"Four rounds like the one I had today could win this championship," said Irwin, who won his third Open at Medinah a year ago. "A 280 total wouldn't look bad right now. I would have taken it a couple of days ago. "

Despite a morning rain that further softened greens and delayed play for more than an hour Saturday morning, the surviving best players in the world were having their difficulties with Hazeltine.

"It was breezy out there," said Irwin. "That was the difference. Not only was there a lot more wind than we had the first two days, the direction is different."

The U.S. Weather Service said the winds out of the northwest were 5 gusting to 15 miles per hour, but Irwin and some other pros felt the gusts were more like 20 miles per hour.

"The wind has made this an entirely different golf course," said Irwin, who played an exhibition round here May 1 when it was 41 degrees with a 30 mile per hour wind. It was cold enough that Irwin wore a knit stocking cap pulled down over his ears.

"Conditions today were a lot better than then," said Irwin. "We are lucky that the greens are a little soft or you might see a bunch of big numbers."

Irwin said that although anything was possible, "realistically you don't have much of a chance if you are more than four or five shots behind the leader. Not only are you playing catch up, you are trying to catch up on a very difficult golf course. To make up more shots than that, you have to shoot a 64 or a 65 and I don't think you are going to see any of those."

The spectators who followed Irwin around the course did see a thinking man's 70 as Irwin overcame two bogeys on the front side and strung together three straight birdies on the back nine for a 33 and a total 70.

Irwin, who started the day at 146, nine shots behind second day leader Payne Stewart, birdied the third hole before bogeys at the fifth and eigth.

"If the wind stays the same or gets tougher and the greens dry out, everybody might have a lot of fun out there in the final round," said Irwin, who won his first Open in 1974 at Winged Foot and second at Inverness in 1979.