HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- The most nervous Chris Perry remembers being was the first time he played golf with Arnold Palmer. Perhaps the most excited Perry has been on a golf course was when he attended Hilton Head's PGA Tour event as a teen-ager, walked up to the first tee and saw Johnny Miller and Tom Kite.
Today, Perry will be both nervous and excited as he walks in the shadows of those champions of the Harbour Town Golf Links.
One of Palmer's 60 Tour victories came here. So did two of Miller's 24. Kite earned one of his 19 wins in the 1989 Nabisco Championships played at Sea Pines Plantation. Perry will be looking for just the second victory of his 14-year Tour career in the final round of the 1999 MCI Classic today.
And he will be trying to enter a deep pool of Harbour Town history.
"This has always been one of my favorites, probably in my top five golf courses," said Perry, who enters the final round of the 31st Heritage with a one-shot lead over a tightly-bunched field. "I have always had a fondness for Harbour Town."
This week, the feeling has been returned.
After finishing no better than 27th in 10 previous Heritage appearances, Perry is in position to join Palmer, Miller, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and several other accomplished players as a Heritage champion. He shot a 3-under-par 68 on a scoring-friendly day at Harbour Town to move one shot ahead of second-round leader Payne Stewart and John Huston.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen is alone in fourth place, two shots back at 8-under, while five players are at minus-7 and seven more are at minus-6.
There are 23 players within five shots of the lead after much of the field made up ground on Saturday. The first 21 players on the course for the third round shot a combined 30-under par in windless morning conditions, including David Frost, who moved up from 52nd to fifth with a 64. Although scoring slowed in the afternoon, the entire field shot 33-under par for the day after totaling 164-over during the first two rounds.
"There are a lot of people in the golf tournament, now," said Stewart, who was one of only two players currently in the top 22 to shoot over par on Saturday.
One of the most crowded leaderboards for a Heritage Sunday developed out of one of the most crowded days in tournament history.
Parking lots inside Sea Pines Plantation were full by 2 p.m., and spill-over parking was routed to Plantation Drive. And the event's first sell-out crowd lined fairways and lingered at tees and greens.
And, by day's end, the field was as congested as the area in front of Harbour Town's clubhouse.
"I could have been in the lead today," said Stewart, whose 72 matched his highest round at Harbour Town since the second round of the 1996 Heritage. "I am disappointed about my score, but I am still in the golf tournament. Now there are a lot of people in the tournament, a lot of explosive people."
Stewart could have eliminated many of today's contenders if not for a little explosion of his own Saturday.
Tied with John Cook after five holes, Stewart birdied No. 6 to go one ahead. Stewart's tee shot on the par-3 seventh kicked off a tree and onto the green. He made a four-foot putt for birdie while Cook made double bogey out of the front bunker and Stewart was suddenly four shots clear of the field.
"I saw he was 12-under," Perry said of Stewart, "but I don't even look at leaderboards. I play my own game."
The games Stewart and Perry played coming in set up a dramatic Sunday.
While Stewart, a two-time Heritage champion, bogeyed three of his final 10 holes, Perry played the back nine in 32 to pass the field. He mixed birdies at Nos. 10, 13 and 15 with a bogey on No. 12, and picked up the stroke that separates him from the field by making one of only four birdies at No. 17 on Saturday.
"I've been playing really well this year," said Perry, the son of former Major League pitcher Jim Perry and the nephew of Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry. "All tomorrow is, probably, is nerves. This is my 14th year out here, so I'm looking forward to tomorrow. It will be a new challenge."
As challenging as those chasing him today could be his own final-round confidence.
After not finishing better than 48th on the PGA Tour money list in 14 years, Perry won for the first time last year at the B.C. Open. This season, he has finished second and fourth. But, he has yet to establish himself as a recognizable Tour player, admitting he still frequently is confused with either Craig Parry or Kenny Perry.
And he has not often been in the position he is in today, at the top of a tight Heritage field that also is one of the tournament's best.
"Everybody gets nervous, I don't mean that I'm not going to be," said Perry, who will play in the last group of the day with John Huston at 2:10 p.m. "What's nice about being last is you kind of have a feel for what is going on out there. I will not approach it any differently, whether I was leading or pretty far back.
"The bottom line is, I'm out here to win like everybody else. I'll just get in my own world and just go play,"
And try to play himself into the world of Heritage champions.