Mon, Jul 18, 2011 - Page 20 News List

Clarke leads The Open as Americans mount charge

ECLIPSED:US Open winner Rory McIlroy was upstaged by his playing partner, Rickie Fowler, who said he was inspired by watching Tom Watson battle the elements

Reuters, SANDWICH, ENGLAND

Rickie Fowler waves to the crowd after making a birdie putt during the third round of The Open on Saturday at Royal St George’s golf course in Sandwich, England.

Photo: Reuters

Once the filthy weather had done its worst and scattered The Open field asunder, Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke emerged in late on Saturday sunshine atop the leaderboard, 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 southeast tip, posting a one-under-par 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 surfer-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 the climax.

However, arguably the best performance of the day was from 61-year-old five-time 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 backward at a rapid rate of knots.

Watson, who refuses to fade away into the shadows, will start nine shots back in the final round, as will US 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 afterward said he had been inspired by watching Watson battle the elements.

“Watched a little bit of the coverage prior to us going out, and just saw kind of how he looked like he was having fun, smiling, and embracing the conditions,” Fowler said. “The best way to deal with tough and hard conditions is just go out and try and make a good time of it.

“I’ve just got to make sure I keep having fun. I think that’ll keep me for the most part kind of mellow and not getting too far ahead of myself,” added Fowler, who has yet to win on Tour, but impressed many on his Ryder Cup debut last year.

The 42-year-old, cigar-loving Clarke, who finished tied third in 2001, but has not made the top-10 in a major since, was also enjoying himself although he admitted he had been lucky with the weather.

“We got very lucky,” Clarke, the only man to birdie the first — one of three birdies in his round which also included two bogeys — told reporters.

As well as Fowler and Johnson, several other Americans are handily placed, although former US Open winner Lucas Glover is four shots back after a disappointing 73 playing with Clarke.

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