SANDWICH, England, (Reuters) – Once the filthy weather had done its worst and scattered the British Open field asunder, Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke emerged in late yesterday sunshine atop the leader board but with a pack of Americans lurking dangerously.
Joint overnight leader Clarke was spared the sheeting rain and 25-kph gusts that ‘welcomed’ the earlier starters at the exposed links course on England’s south-east tip, posting a one-under round of 69 and a one-stroke lead over big-hitting American Dustin Johnson.
Johnson managed a two-under 68, as did young compatriot Rickie Fowler, who surged up the leaderboard into a tie for third spot, three shots back, with Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn who could yet exorcise the demons of Sandwich 2003 when victory slipped through his fingers in an excruciating late collapse.
Fowler’s round, together with veteran Tom Watson’s, was the most impressive, however, as the 22-year-old Californian, who looks more Malibu surf-dude than a grizzled links golfer, showed tremendous maturity and nous in diabolical conditions.
With four holes on the bunker-riddled Royal St George’s layout offering not a single birdie all day, only Clarke, Johnson and Fowler signed for below-par rounds and just six players are in red numbers ahead of today’s climax.
Arguably the best performance of the day, however, was from 61-year-old five-times champion Watson who, a day after thrilling crowds with a hole in one, schemed his way round in 72 shots when pretty much everyone else out on the rain-lashed course was going backwards at a rapid rate of knots.
“It can tear you up and spit you out. It’s done it to me,” Watson, who two years ago came agonisingly close to winning at Turnberry, said after a masterful display of control and patience that had his rivals in awe and Phil Mickelson suggesting Watson was peerless in the wind.
“One of the things that you learn is there’s an old saying, ‘swing with ease into the breeze’,” explained Watson.
Watson, who refuses to fade away into the shadows, will start nine shots back today, as will U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy who played with Fowler for the third day in succession but was eclipsed by the young American.
McIlroy was poised for a weekend tilt at the title after rounds of 71 and 69 but he never mastered the conditions and when he double-bogeyed the demanding par-five 14th his challenge appeared to have evaporated.
“If the conditions are similar to what they were this morning, then it’s going to be very tough to make ground up on the leaders,” he said.
Fowler, dressed in white waterproofs, birdied the fifth on the outward nine and rattled off three more in four holes on the way back, then afterwards said he had been inspired by watching Watson battle the elements.