SANDWICH, England (AFP) – Darren Clarke was 18 holes away from glory here Sunday as the final round of the British Open got under way in wet and blustery conditions at Royal St George’s.
Clarke, who took a one-shot lead over the rest of the field on Saturday, was due to tee off at 1410 local time (1310 GMT) with the popular veteran from Northern Ireland chasing his first win in a Major.
The 42-year-old will be partnered by big-hitting American Dustin Johnson, who is one shot off the pace and desperate to atone for agonising failures at last year’s US Open and US PGA Championship.
With most of the realistic challengers for the title still yet to tee off, it was left to Spain’s Sergio Garcia to light up St George’s with some superb play that included three birdies in the opening five holes.
The highlight was an astounding, arcing 80-foot eagle putt at the treacherous 475-yard par four fourth. Garcia’s early birdie blitz put him three-under-par after six holes, one over for the tournament.
However Garcia’s playing partner, pre-tournament favourite Rory McIlroy, had a less happy time of it, once again struggling to find any sort of consistency.
The 22-year-old had started the day at four over, nine shots off the lead, and needing a miraculous round to have any hope of challenging the leaders.
But a birdie at the second was swiftly followed by a double-bogey at three, and the US Open champion was one over after six holes meaning Clarke alone will carry Northern Irish hopes on Sunday.
Many thought that Clarke had left his best chance of winning The Open at Royal Troon in 1997 where he just missed out to Justin Leonard.
A further near-miss came at Royal Lytham four years later. His recent record at the Open has been abysmal, with two missed cuts and a tie for 44th at St Andrews in last year’s tournament.
But working with renowned sports psychologist Bob Rotella has helped put Clarke back in the frame once more.
Other challenges to Clarke are expected to emerge from young American Rickie Fowler, who shot a brilliant two-under-par 68 on Saturday and Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn, who were both three off the lead overnight.
Four off the pace were Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez (72) and Lucas Glover of the United States (73).
The Silver Medal awarded to the top amateur at The Open had boiled down to a battle between Tom Lewis of England, who started the day at five over and Peter Uihlein of the United States who was at seven over.