SANDWICH, England — 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,” Clarkesaid.
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.