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The U.S. Open championship has been in American hands for 13 years. That could change Sunday unless a couple of old-timers come through.

South African Ernie Els, shot a 66 on Saturday, including the first-ever 30 in the seven Opens at Oakmont Country Club, for a 54-hole total of 7-under-par 206 and a two-stroke lead going into Sunday's final round.He's followed by New Zealander Frank Nobilo at 208 and Colin Montgomerie of Scotland at 209.

The top Americans, also at 209, were 44-year-old Tom Watson, 49-year-old Hale Irwin and 39-year-old Loren Roberts.

Foreign players have dominated the Masters and the British Open during the past decade, but none has won the U.S. Open since David Graham of Australia in 1981.

Graham, Tony Jacklin of England in 1970 and South African Gary Player in 1965 are the only foreign players to win the U.S. Open since 1927.

"The foreign players are the best players in the world now," Watson said after birdieing the 18th hole for a 68.

But Watson, for one, is not going to stand back and let anyone else walk off with the championship.

"My frame of mind for tomorrow? To win. Simply to win no matter what it takes," Watson said.

That could be easier said than done - especially when it comes to the 24-year-old Els, who was second in the Buick Open last week and runner-up in the European PGA Championship earlier this year. He has the Americans tripping over each other trying to praise him.

"He's not up-and-coming," Watson said. "He's there. He's going to be a world beater."

And when Irwin heard Els say he might play on the U.S. tour next year he said: "That's too bad."

While it was a good day for the young Els, 54-year-old Jack Nicklaus crumbled on a sweltering 97-degree day, shooting a 40 on the front nine and 77 for the day. He's 3 over, 10 strokes behind Els.

Still in contention are Curtis Strange and Steve Lowery at 3 under, Australian Greg Norman, John Cook and Steve Pate at 2 under, five strokes off the pace going into Sunday's final round.

"It would mean everything to me" to win the Open, Els said, "It's a major. Any pro golfer wants to win a major. I'd like to start right here."

Nobilo, 34, and Montgomerie, 30, have never won in the United States. But Montgomerie finished third in the 1992 Open at Pebble Beach and said he's learned from that.

"I've been there before," the pudgy Scot said of the final-round pressure. "I'm in there with a great shot, and I believe I've had my bad round." Montgomerie shot a 2-over-par 73 on Saturday.

The bearded Nobilo was steady all day and shot a 3-under 68.

Irwin, who has won the Open three times, could have been alone in second place but double bogeyed the last hole to shoot 71. He said he popped up his drive after he lost control of the club because of his sweaty hands.

Irwin, who was 45 when he won in 1990, is the oldest man to win the Open.

Roberts, who won for the first time in his 13-year pro career earlier this year, mastered the treacherous Oakmont greens for seven birdies and no bogeys.

He punctuated his round with a curling 60-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole, a putt that moved so slowly across the slippery green that it seemed like it might never get to the hole, and then added a 15-footer on 18 for birdie.

Els started the day at 2 under, birdied Nos. 1 and 2, eagled the par-5 fourth hole when he ran in a 25-footer, birdied 5 and made a two-putt birdie on No. 9 for his 6-under par-30.

But he drove into the rough on the par-4 tenth hole, pitched back to the fairway, hit on and three-putted for double bogey. He also bogeyed 16 to fall to 5 under.

But he got it back together for a birdie-birdie finish. The first came when he drove into the rough near the 315-yard 17th hole then pitched to 8 feet and made it. He finished with a 9-foot birdie putt on 18.

Watson, who made three putts of 35-feet or longer, got back in the chase with an eagle on No. 4, and birdies on Nos. 5, 8 and 9 for a 32 on the front side. He struggled, bogeying 15 and 16, but rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 18.



Almost a record

OAKMONT, Pa. - Ben Hogan never did it, Arnold Palmer never did it, Jack Nicklaus never did it. Loren Roberts did it.

Few golfers have ever made so much money without becoming a household name, but Roberts finds himself much less an unknown than 24 hours ago. That's what shooting a 64 in the U.S. Open will do for one's notoriety.

Roberts played one of the most memorable rounds in a major championship Saturday, threatening Johnny Miller's once-unassailable Oakmont County Club record of 63 with a 7-under 64 that didn't include a single bogey.

In the seven Opens played at Oakmont, only Miller ever shot a better round, and even Miller didn't contend with 95-degree heat during his record round in 1973.

Roberts made it look easy, with seven birdies and 11 pars that shot him right back into a tournament that an opening-round 76 seemed to have deep-sixed.

He had a chance to tie Miller's record, set in 1973, but missed what he called a makeable 15-foot birdie putt on 17 before sinking a 15-footer for birdie on 18.

"Honestly, I wasn't thinking about the record," he said. "It never entered my mind."