British Open: Clarke avoids weather, leads
By Doug Ferguson
SANDWICH, England ó About the only predictable part of this British Open is the weather.
The biggest surprise is the list of contenders for the claret jug.
The weather was wild again Saturday, shifting from a raging wind to a gentle sea breeze, from a driving rain to brilliant sunshine, and leaving most of the field wet, tired and feeling as though they got the short end of the draw. Thatís not unusual.
More peculiar was seeing Darren Clarke atop the leaderboard after a 1-under 69, his first time in contention at any major in 10 years. Right behind was Dustin Johnson, who was 4 over through the opening 13 holes of this championship and somehow wound up in the final group.
Thomas Bjorn, who threw away the British Open eight years ago at Royal St. Georgeís, was the first alternate at the start of the week and now is only three shots behind. Thereís also a 22-year-old who plays without fear and makes it look fun ó only itís not U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, but Rickie Fowler ó ěLittle Rickieî as they call him in these parts.
Could anyone have predicted these storylines at the start of the week?
ěNo,î Johnson replied. ěI was playing pretty well, but you never know, especially coming into a British Open.î
At least Sunday might be a little easier to sort out.
Clarke escaped the worst of the raging weather Saturday, leaving him far less traffic on his unlikely road to a claret jug.
He was dressed in full rain gear when he walked to the first tee for a third round that had been crowded with contenders. When he walked off the 18th green in short sleeves, he had a one-shot lead and was blinking in the bright sunshine over Royal St. Georgeís.
There were 44 players within five shots of the lead going into the third round.
Now there are 12.
ěIf somebody had given me 69 before I was going out to play, I would have bitten their hand off for it,î Clarke said. ěSaying that, we did get very fortunate with the draw. Sometimes to win any tournament, the draw can make a big difference. But in The Open Championship, it makes a huge difference. We got very lucky.î
He also was very good.
Clarke missed only two greens in regulation, and was one of only three players who managed to break par. It was his third round in the 60s, and it put him at 5-under 205 and into the final group of the British Open for the first time since 1997 at Royal Troon.
Fewer contenders doesnít make it any easier.
Johnson, the powerful 27-year-old American, managed to make six birdies on his way to a 68 that puts him in the final group for the third time in the last six majors. The other two arenít exactly glorious memories ó an 82 to lose a three-shot lead at the U.S. Open last year, a two-shot penalty on the last hole of the PGA Championship when he didnít realize he was in a bunker.
ěIím going to be pretty comfortable out there tomorrow because I know what to expect, I know how to approach it, and I know what I do in those situations,î Johnson said. ěSo hopefully, I can go out tomorrow and play some solid golf like Iíve been doing the last few days.î
Fowler was soaked, zipped up in a cream-colored rainsuit for two-thirds of his round, yet it never seemed to bother him. He hung around par during the worst of the conditions ó a remarkable feat ó and when the rain went away, he took off to higher ground. Fowler made three birdies over the last six holes for a 68 and was two shots behind, along with Thomas Bjorn (71).
Fowler played with McIlroy, whose hopes ended with a tee shot that went out-of-bounds on the 14th. He shot 74 and was nine shots behind.
Lucas Glover, a U.S. Open champion who played in the final group Saturday, made 10 straight pars early in his round only to lose his way, but not his hopes over the final hour. Glover missed two birdie putts inside 6 feet on the back nine, and made two bogeys. He shot 73, but still was within four shots. He was tied with Miguel Angel Jimenez, who didnít make a birdie in his round of 72.
Also still in the mix is Phil Mickelson, who has only contended once in the British Open. He rallied when the sun began to break through the clouds and salvaged a 71, leaving him five shots back in a group that included Anthony Kim (68), PGA champion Martin Kaymer (73) and Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, who tied for fourth at Royal St. Georgeís in 2003 and had a 72 to stay in range.
But it starts with Clarke, a 42-year-old from Northern Ireland who has been watching the youngsters from Ulster celebrate golfís biggest events, from Graeme McDowell at Pebble Beach last summer to McIlroy at Congressional last month.
Is it his turn at this stage in his career?
ěDid I ever doubt I would get myself back in this position? No,î Clarke said. ěDid I know it was going to happen? No. Did I hope it was going to happen? Yes. But did I ever doubt? No.î
Once he finished his own Q & A, Clarke headed to the home of agent Chubby Chandler to ěstuff his faceî and try not to have too much to drink.
A big day awaits Sunday, perhaps the biggest of his career.
And the forecast isnít very friendly.
Typical of the weather in this part of the world, anything goes. Thereís supposed to be a mixture of sunshine and passing showers that could be heavy but wonít stick around for long. The constant is the wind, which again is likely to gust upward of 30 mph at times. A one-shot lead is nothing on Royal St. Georgeís in calm conditions, and anyone at par or better figures to be in the mix.