Clarke stays clear but race for Claret Jug wide open
One round left and still no clue where the Claret Jug is heading.
Twelve men separated by five shots. It's like throwing the balls up in the air and seeing where they land. Except on this course a quirky bounce or a blast of wind and they would roll into the rough or out of bounds.
Everyone has a tale to tell and a good reason for winning. Some might not be familiar yet, but the Claret Jug will change that.
Darren Clarke is the leader and would be a sentimental favourite. A European stalwart who finished second in the 1997 Open at Royal Troon and third at Royal Lytham in 2001. But mostly the fans will roar him on because of his emotional performance at the 2006 Ryder Cup in Ireland when he played shortly after the loss of wife Heather to breast cancer.
Clarke also represents everyman - happy with a pint in his hand, the antithesis of the super-fit modern pro. His manager Chubby Chandler even observed he plays better fat. After winning in Spain earlier this year Clarke travelled home on a budget airline and bought drinks for the entire flight to celebrate
A Clarke win would also crown a remarkable period for Northern Irish golf after the US Open successes of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell. He would also be only the second Northern Irish winner of the Open after Fred Daly in 1947.
Clarke, seen here saluting the crowd on the 18th green at the end of his third round, would be a popular winner. Picture: Reuters
"Obviously, I'm very excited," said the 42-year-old from Portrush. "The Open Championship is the biggest and best tournament in the world. I've failed 19 times to lift the Claret Jug. I have an opportunity, but it is just an opportunity because it is going to be very windy again."
He added: "Did I ever doubt I would get back in this position? No. Did I know it was going to happen? No. Did I hope it was going to happen? Yes."
Playing with Clarke in the final group will be 27-year-old Dustin Johnson, the athletic American with the big-driving reputation.
Johnson has been close in majors but also burned by the experience. Last year he led the US Open by three shots going into the final round but the big stage got to him and he amassed 82. Later that year, he thought he had secured a spot in a play-off for the USPGA, only to be penalised two shots when it was discovered he had inadvertently grounded his club on a sandy patch of ground deemed to be a bunker at the quirky Whistling Straits course.
But the resilient Johnson's back again, and expects to be better for his near misses.
"Obviously, I've been in this situation a few times so I think the more you put yourself in a situation the more comfortable you get," said Johnson, who at four under is one stroke behind Clarke.
Johnson is part of the new breed of US players hoping to break a record run of five straight majors without an American winner. Going into the final round, there are 12 Americans in the top 20.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with American guys or American golf," he said. "We struggled in the last few majors but everyone struggles in majors. But we've got a good shot at getting one on Sunday."
Rickie Fowler, two back in third, is the new pin-up boy of US golf and one of America's big hopes to keep a lid on Rory McIlroy, with whom he seems inextricably linked.
The pair, now 22, were both the game's leading amateurs at one stage and were on opposing teams in the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal County Down. But while the Northern Irishman has kick-started his major tally and won on both the US and European Tours, Fowler is yet to land a professional victory despite three runner-up finishes.
Fowler outshone his playing partner McIlroy on Saturday, producing a superb round in the treacherous conditions. Picture: Reuters
The cool Californian, who likes riding his motocross bike almost as much as golf, came of age at the Ryder Cup last year. Picked "on a hunch" by captain Corey Pavin, Fowler repaid his faith by birdieing the last four holes against Edoardo Molinari to steal what could have been a decisive half point in the singles.
"That's probably one I'm going to draw on for the rest of my life," he said. But the poster-boy image and streetstyle looks also belie a gritty competitor in the wind and rain of an Open Championship.
In only his first Open last year at St Andrews he carded 67, 71, 67 for the last three rounds to tie for 14th. And on a savage Saturday at Sandwich he fired the joint best round of the day with Johnson - a 68, at least half of which was played in atrocious conditions. And which was six shots better than playing partner McIlroy.
"I love links golf, I love the variety of shots you have to play," he said. "Joe, my caddie, watched a little bit of the coverage prior to us going out, and he just saw kind of how Tom Watson looked like he was having fun, smiling, and embracing the conditions.
"You have to embrace where you're at and what's in front of you. I'd love my first win to be a major and for it to be here."
Then there's Thomas Bjorn, tied at two under with Fowler. The 40-year-old Dane, a Ryder Cup vice-captain in October, broke down in tears in front of the world's press on Thursday when asked what his father, who died in May, would have made of his first-round 65 to lead eight years after blowing a four-shot advantage with three holes left at the same venue.
"Very proud" was the answer but not half as proud as if his son, who took some time to get over that infamous collapse in 2003, was to grab an improbable maiden major title on Sunday.
Another shot further back is Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez, the eccentric 47-year-old, nicknamed "the Mechanic", who performs a series of elaborate stretches with a cigar firmly clamped in his teeth and who follows each round with a glass or two of his favourite Rioja, whether he has shot 65 or 85.
The popular four-time Ryder Cup player is a prolific winner on the European Tour but is another without a major to his name. How fitting if he was to win the first major following the death of his countryman, the late, great Seve Ballesteros. Ironic, too, given that Jimenez said this week it was time to move on from Seve's death and focus on the future. And if he did get his hands around the Claret Jug, he would he would be the oldest Open champion in history, beating Old Tom Morris, who was 46, when he won in 1867.
Finally, of the six men going into the final day under par, there is American Lucas Glover, tied with Jimenez. A surprise winner of the 2009 US Open as a clean-cut journeyman, he appeared to be heading into 'one-major wonder' land. But now sporting a full backwoodsman beard, the 31-year-old from South Carolina secured another win earlier this year and is in contention to back up his US Open title.
Of those at level par, American star Phil Mickelson is still chasing an Open win to add to his three Masters and one USPGA title. The 41-year-old Californian claims he has reinvented his approach to links golf and it seems to be working as he looks to improve on a best finish of third in 2004. "There's nothing more exciting than on Sunday having a chance in a major," he said.
These are just the headline acts. There are five players alongside Mickelson five shots off the lead. And on the unpredictable Royal St George's layout, with a stiff breeze blowing, anything can happen.
Remember, too, that Paul Lawrie came from 10 shots back to win at Carnoustie in 1999, albeit helped by Jean van de Velde's implosion. And that even brings McIlroy, who is nine back, into the equation.
But we could go on. Everyone has a story. Everyone is desperate to win and everyone will be a deserving champion if they take fewer shots than anyone else. The one certainty is that someone will pick up the Claret Jug on Sunday afternoon.