Clarke holds Sandwich lead

7/16/2011 7:29:08 PM
Darren Clarke  (Getty Images)
Darren Clarke (Getty Images)
Darren Clarke, who played his first Open Championship 20 years ago and has looked on as so many friends and rivals have lifted the famous trophy aloft, leads by a shot with 18 holes to go at Sandwich.

The 42 year old overcame rain, wind and all the inevitable pressures of setting the pace in the biggest event in golf to fire a superb third round 69.

There were only two rounds better than that all day, but the fact that one of the two 68s came from Dustin Johnson means that the American is now the chief danger to Clarke's hopes of continuing the remarkable story of Irish success in the last four years.

After Dubliner Padraig Harrington's back-to-back Opens and a US PGA Championship title as well, Graeme McDowell captured the US Open last year and then compatriot Rory McIlroy succeeded him last month.

Now their fellow Northern Irishman Clarke, playing the 54th Major of his career but without a top-ten finish in them for a decade, stands five under par and looks down on the rest of the field.

He knows he might never have a better chance to lift The Claret Jug denied him in 1997 by a closing 65 from American Justin Leonard.

But Johnson has a burning desire too after what happened to him last season.

The 27 year old led the US Open by three with a round to go at Pebble Beach, but let in McDowell by carding a closing 82.

Then two months later he thought he was in a play-off for the US PGA Championship after a closing bogey, but was given a two stroke penalty for grounding his club on sand on the final hole.

In joint third place on two under are Thomas Björn, the Dane who missed out on the 2003 Open at the course after leading by three with four to play, and American Rickie Fowler.

Lucas Glover shot 73 playing with Clarke, while Fowler matched Johnson's 68 partnering fellow 22 year old Rory McIlroy, whose chances of a US Open-Open double hang by a thread now with a 74 dropping him nine behind.

That included driving out of bounds on the long 14th and running up a double bogey seven, but McIlroy did then recall that in 1999 Paul Lawrie was ten back at Carnoustie and won.

Clarke said: "From tee to green I can't really play any better. I had one of those days where I had full control of my ball flight, but I didn't have the speed with my putting at all.

"If somebody had said before the start I could have 69, though, I would have bitten their hand off."

As for the ovations he received he laughed and replied: "I think most of the crowd identify with a guy who's not quite an athlete and likes a pint.

"I have a chance to realise a dream now and that would be fantastic.

"I've done just about everything else. I've been fortunate to win Ryder Cups and World Championships, but a Major has so far eluded me.

"I've a pretty decent chance. A major is always tough to win, but I've put myself in position."

Johnson said: "Obviously I've been in this situation a few times, so I think the more and more you can put yourself in it the more comfortable you get.

"I know what to expect. I know how to approach it and what to do."

The golfing gods were with Clarke, because it was only over the opening stretch that he had to contend with the worst of the conditions.

After truly foul weather had taken most of the overnight back markers out of the hunt, Clarke made a dream start, sinking a 15 foot putt on the opening green for the only birdie all day on the 452 yard hole.

He had a chance to go two in front on the next, but missed from five feet.

The rain had thankfully eased by then and Clarke might also have been the one player to register a two on the 206 yard third, only to fail from 18 feet.

His lead was two by then, however, with Björn bogeying the gruelling fourth to hand back the shot he had picked up with a 20 footer on the second.

That fourth proved the toughest hole again, even though it was reduced from 495 to 469 yards because of the weather.

It saw 45 bogeys, six double bogey sixes, a seven from ex-winner Paul Lawrie and an eight from American Spencer Levin, yet Clarke hit his second shot to five feet again and had to be disappointed not to stretch his advantage further.

It looked even more costly when he three-putted the next and although he made amends for that with a two-putt birdie from long range at the downwind seventh another bogey at the next led to him being caught.

Johnson did it with birdies at the tenth and 12th after turning in a level par 35, but a bogey on the 459 yard 13th handed the outright lead to Clarke again as he started the back nine.

A chip to six feet by the American at the 547 yard 14th brought them back level, only for Clarke to roll home a 12 footer on the 12th.

Johnson made it four birdies in six holes with an eight foot putt at the 15th and was back on terms, but he left a 15 foot par putt short at the 17th and parred the last.

Clarke then parred his way through the last six holes and was happy to do that at the last as, like the third and fourth, there was not a single birdie there all day.