Clarke takes lead into final round of Open

Published 11:37 pm Saturday, July 16, 2011

SANDWICH, England (AP) — A day that began with howling rain and wind ended in bright sunshine, a turn of meteorological fortune that helped sort out a bunched-up field at the British Open.

Darren Clarke was among those catching a break with the weather, shooting a 1-under 69 Saturday for a one-stroke lead heading to the final round and putting little Northern Ireland in position to claim its third major championship in a little over a year.

“If somebody had given me 69 before I was going out to play, I would have bitten their hand off for it,” Clarke said.

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Then, the persnickety weather along the English seaside took a sudden turn for the better.

“We did get very fortunate with the draw,” Clarke conceded. “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.”

Clarke doesn’t have it locked up yet. Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler led an American charge up the board, looking to end the country’s longest drought without a major title in the modern Grand Slam era.

The Ulsterman was at 5-under 205, with Johnson just one shot behind after his second straight 68. Fowler posted a matching 68 and was at 208, tied with first-round leader Thomas Bjorn, still in position to erase the memory of his meltdown at Royal St. George’s in 2003.

Through lunchtime, heavy showers and winds gusting over 30 mph forced players to don bulky, oven-style mitts between shots, huddle under flapping umbrellas and try to find a way to get around the course without giving up too many shots to par Saturday.

“It was playing stupidly difficult,” said Edoardo Molinari, who sloshed to a 76. “Some holes were just a joke.”

But the foul weather eased up in time for those with late tee times to start putting up red numbers. It sure sorted out the 71-player field, which had been separated by only seven strokes going into the day. Now, the margin from top to bottom is 20, with only 11 players within five shots of the lead.

Clarke posted his third straight round in the 60s, suddenly a contender for his first major championship after coming into the Open as a 42-year-old afterthought.

He used to be the face of Northern Ireland golf, only to get left in the background by two of his younger countrymen. First, Graeme McDowell won the 2009 U.S. Open. Then, Rory McIlroy romped to an eight-stroke win in that same championship last month at Congressional.

Now, all eyes are on Clarke. McIlroy faded from contention with a 74, his round ruined by a double-bogey at the 14th where he drove it out of bounds. The 22-year-old is now a staggering nine strokes behind Clarke, with little hope of claiming the claret jug on Sunday.

Clarke climbed into the top spot all by himself with a birdie at the 12th, then coasted to the clubhouse with six straight pars under skies that had turned from gloomy to sunny.

Johnson kept up the strong play that began with a hole-in-one on Thursday, briefly claiming a share of the lead before a bogey at the 13th knocked him back.

At the start, he looked like a guy who might miss the cut when he played the first 12 holes at 4 over. But that ace on the 16th hole seemed to turn things around. He finished with a 70 Thursday, then put up consecutive 68s.

“The ace,” he said, “really kind of got me going.”

Johnson has shown he can contend in majors, leading last year at both the U.S. Open (where he played miserably on the final day) and the PGA Championship (a much-debated penalty cost him a spot in a playoff). Now, he wants to show he can finish.

“I’ve been in this situation a few times, so I think the more and more you can put yourself in a situation, the more comfortable you get,” Johnson said. “I’m going to be pretty comfortable out there (Sunday) because I know what to expect, I know how to approach it, and I know what I do in those situations.”

The 22-year-old Fowler, playing with McIlroy, teed off about the time the worst of the rain lashed the course. But the American phenom held it together better than his partner, and birdied three holes down the stretch after the weather improved.

“I had quite a bit of fun out there,” Fowler said. “Obviously, it wasn’t the best of conditions. But you knew it was going to be tough, and you just had to make the best of it.”

Another American, 2009 U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover, started the day tied with Clarke but struggled in the final group with a 73. He’ll have some work to do to win a second major title, four shots back at 209 and tied with Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez.

The group at 210 included Phil Mickelson, who’s never played especially well in the British Open but seems to be approaching links golf with a better attitude. He carved out a 71 to stay in contention.

Lefty is the last of the Americans to win a major, taking the 2010 Masters. Since then, they’ve gone five straight without a title, but they’ll have plenty of challengers to send at Clarke on Sunday. Anthony Kim and Davis Love III also were within five strokes.

“The European Tour guys have been playing well,” Johnson said. “But we’ve got a good shot at getting one.”

McIlroy was kicking himself for one terrible shot, the blunder at No. 14 which likely ended any shot he had of winning a second straight major.

“You’ve done so well for 13 holes to keep yourself in it,” he said. “You’ve got half of Kent on your left and you hit it right. It was a bit disappointing.”

Early on, the weather was downright brutal.

Umbrellas snapped. Bo Van Pelt went through eight gloves trying to keep his hands dry. Some golfers turned around their caps when putting so they wouldn’t have to deal with rain dripping off the bill.

The 495-yard 14th, which played into the teeth of the wind, was an absolute beast. The 71 players posted a 65-over total at that hole, averaging nearly a stroke above par. There were only 18 pars, and not one player managed a birdie.

“Whenever you have social rounds and it starts raining a little bit, you say, ’I’m outta here boys,”’ said defending Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, who wasn’t too upset about a 74. “I couldn’t do that today.”

Five-time Open champion Tom Watson played in the worst of the weather and still managed a 72. The 61-year-old showed those youngsters how it’s done.

“The conditions are bothersome, but you just try to do the best you can to keep your grips dry and your wits about you and go about your business to try to make pars out there,” Watson said. “Par is a great score out there, obviously. But it’s a struggle.”

Not for Clarke.