Justin Rose and Phil Mickelson cut contrasting figures on Saturday as they came to terms with the end of their US Open dreams for this year.
Seeking to become the first back-to-back winner since Curtis Strange in 1989, Rose was left frustrated by a number of "routine" errors which meant he had to settle for a third round of 70 at Pinehurst.
But the man he condemned to a record sixth runners-up finish at Merion 12 months ago was able to maintain his sense of humour despite missing out on the chance to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in winning all four of golf's major titles.
"If I play well tomorrow, if I hit it better and make some putts, I think I can shoot four or five under, end around even par and finish second again," Mickelson joked after a 72 containing three bogeys and just one birdie.
"I'll play a good solid round tomorrow, not really worry about the results and see if I can finish the year strong."
Rose, who was surprised that his 70 matched the lowest score of the day so far, said: "I was frustrated because I dropped four shots in three holes with my short game around the turn.
"I knifed it out of the bunker on nine, which should have been a very routine up and down. I didn't get up and down from the front edge of 10, which was very routine. The 12th was a little bit of a tougher up and down, but I still had the green to work with. Eight times out of 10, you'd be hopeful there.
"That's four shots that I just gave away like that, plus three-putting the first, so five shots. Allow yourself two mistakes and that three shots gets me a couple under.
"It allows me to dream going into tomorrow that it's possible. I think right now I have to accept that I'm probably playing for the places, but stranger things have happened. Today was the day I needed something special."
At one over and five over, Rose and Mickelson were 10 and 14 shots respectively behind Germany's Martin Kaymer, who had taken a record-equalling lead into the third round.
Successive rounds of 65 meant Kaymer had equalled the lowest halfway total in major championship history (130), as well as eclipsing the US Open record of 131 set by Rory McIlroy at Congressional in 2011.
The 29-year-old's six-shot advantage over American Brendon Todd also matched the championship record shared by Tiger Woods (2000) and McIlroy (2011), but tournament officials were doing their best to get Kaymer to come back to the pack.
No rain had fallen overnight as it did on Thursday to soften the greens and the pin positions tucked close to the edge of almost every green prompted 2010 winner Graeme McDowell to write on Twitter: "Moving day here at @usopengolf but looking at the pin positions level par makes a move today. #patience #grindmode."
Speaking after a round of 74, veteran American Kenny Perry said: "I tell you what, it was a golf course of 18 of the toughest pins I've ever seen. It was probably the hardest set-up I've ever experienced in a major championship."
Those sentiments were borne out by some of the early completed scores which saw Boo Weekley shoot 80, Russell Henley 82 and Japan's Toru Taniguchi an 18-over-par 88 which contained six pars, seven bogeys, four double bogeys and a triple bogey.
And Kaymer was soon in trouble with a three-putt bogey on the second followed by another bogey on the fourth, although he did superbly well to limit the damage after his tee shot finished up against a mound of pine needles and forced him to take a penalty drop.
Another pulled drive on the par-five fifth found the "native area" left of the fairway, but Kaymer produced a stunning approach shot from 202 yards to five feet and holed for eagle to get back to 10 under par.
That was good enough for a seven-shot lead, but that became five when Kaymer charged his birdie putt on the sixth past the hole and off the green, while American duo Erik Compton and Kevin Na picked up birdies elsewhere to move to four under.
Despite the tough conditions - or more likely because of them - USGA executive director Mike Davis said tournament officials were pleased with the tournament's return to Pinehurst.
"We are delighted with it," he told NBC. "It's a different type of US Open from 1999 and 2005 here, but in a good way. It's still a great comprehensive test of golf and the players have to hit all the shots.
"They have more options off the tee but they still have to get on the Donald Ross-designed turtleback greens."