SANDWICH, England – Darren Clarke escaped the worst of the raging weather Saturday in the British Open, leaving him far less traffic on his unlikely road to a claret jug.
Clarke 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 was blinking in the bright sunshine over Royal St. George’s after a 1-under 69 gave him a one-shot lead over Dustin Johnson. The majority of the field was still drying out from the brunt of such harsh conditions.
There were 44 players within five shots of the lead going into the third round.
Now there are 12.
“If somebody had given me 69 before I was going out to play, I would have bitten their hand off for it,” Clarke said. “Saying 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.”
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 doesn’t 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 aren’t exactly glorious memories – 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 didn’t realize he was in a bunker.
“I’m 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,” Johnson said. “So hopefully, I can go out tomorrow and play some solid golf like I’ve been doing the last few days.”
Only four other players were under par, and while U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy isn’t one of them, in his place is another 22-year-old who plays without fear and makes it look fun. And no one played better than Rickie Fowler on this wild day of weather.
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 – a remarkable feat – 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).
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 didn’t 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. George’s 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 golf’s 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?
“Did I ever doubt I would get myself back in this position? No,” Clarke said. “Did I know it was going to happen? No. Did I hope it was going to happen? Yes. But did I ever doubt? No.”
Once he finished his own Q & A, Clarke headed to the home of agent Chubby Chandler to “stuff his face” and try not to have too much to drink.
A big day awaits Sunday, perhaps the biggest of his career.
And the forecast isn’t very friendly.
Typical of the weather in this part of the world, anything goes. There’s supposed to be a mixture of sunshine and passing showers that could be heavy but won’t 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. George’s in calm conditions, and anyone at par or better figures to be in the mix.
No other major championship depends so largely on the weather, and that was never more clear on Saturday.
Those who played early, such as five-time Open champion Tom Watson, caught the worst of the nasty stuff – gusts so strong they flipped umbrellas inside-out, a light rain that soon turned into a driving rain, and scores that soared through the gray sky.
Of the first 41 players who teed off, no one could even match par. Trevor Immelman had one of the better rounds at 72, and his strong effort left him nine shots behind.
“It was like going 18 holes with the heavyweight champion of the world,” he said.
Watson, the 61-year-old magician on the links, must have been smiling inside when he saw how bad it was. He worked his way around the front nine in wind so strong that he twice had to hit driver for his second shot, yet he didn’t make a bogey and was drawing a huge crowd looking for a repeat of Turnberry two years ago, when he nearly won.
He, too, had a 72 and most likely is too far behind.
“We got lucky,” Mickelson said. “I think the guys that played late got really lucky, myself included, that it went away right around the turn for me. And we went from really fighting for pars on every hole to thinking about birdies on some.”
Until Fowler broke through with his 68, the 41 players before him had an average score of 76.36. The next 29 players after him, who played most of the round without the rain, had an average score of 72.96.
“The way I was playing, I would have loved to have seen the weather stay the same throughout the day,” Fowler said. “But that’s the beauty of the playing in The Open Championship. It’s not always the same all day. It can change any minute.”
It wasn’t just the weather. Clarke and Johnson stood out against the others, keeping their mistakes to a minimum. Clarke might have done even better if he could have made some more putts. After a 15-foot birdie on the opening hole, he had good looks at birdie on the next six holes without making any of them. But he never lost the lead, either.
Now he has to keep it together for one more round. It’s only a one-shot lead, but it’s not a bad place to be.
“Nineteen times I’ve failed to try and lift the claret jug, and tomorrow I have an opportunity,” Clarke said. “But at the moment, it’s just an opportunity because the weather is going to be very windy again tomorrow, and there’s a long way to go still in this championship.”