Golf / 123rd Open: Zoeller's turn for the better: Faxon takes a share of the lead as perfect conditions bring a flock of birdies

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The Independent Online
GOING into today's final round of the 123rd Open Championship at Turnberry, the only certain thing is that the course will be the loser. After a third round of spectacularly low scoring, the joint leaders are two Americans, Fuzzy Zoeller, whose 64 yesterday was secured with a back-nine 31, and Brad Faxon. They are on 201, nine under par, a shot clear of Northern Ireland's Ronan Rafferty, Tom Watson, Nick Price and Jesper Parnevik. Another Ulsterman, David Feherty, stands on 203.

Asked if he thought he could win, Zoeller replied: 'I wouldn't be here if I didn't' Zoeller, who has never bettered the eighth place he had at Turnberry in 1986 in 12 Open appearances, said he was extremely 'focused' all day. Both he and Rafferty had seven birdies. 'I only noticed what I had shot when I added up my score at the end,' Zoeller said. Faxon, meanwhile, did not conceal his excitement. 'Winning would be a big deal for me' - he has won only five tournaments in his career - 'but there are guys up there who have won majors and I am just privileged to be there with them.'

Watson, the second-round leader, is hoping for a change in the weather. 'I just wish the wind would blow at 40 miles an hour today,' he said. 'But it won't' Since Watson won in 1983, there has been only one American champion, Mark Calcavecchia in 1989.

It was a glorious day on the Ayrshire coast yesterday - blue skies, warm sun and a gentle breeze; perfect for a summer holiday, but too perfect for the staging of an Open Championship. In such weather, Turnberry is shorn of its defences, and the world's leading golfers ran amok. There had been 77 sub-par rounds on the first two days with 156 players taking on the course, but yesterday 81 players provided 42. It has been that sort of week. Last year, Greg Norman and Ernie Els became the first men to break 70 in all four rounds of the Open. Today, seven golfers, including Els again, have that opportunity. The others are Faxon - David Leadbetter's pre- championship tip - Price, Watson, Parnevik, Feherty and Loren Roberts.

The reasons for the low scoring were not hard to identify. Turnberry's fairways were running quickly, the greens were receptive and they played as true as a snooker table. Consequently, the leaders exchanged birdies like business cards.

Seeking a sixth title that would equal Harry Vardon's legendary record, Watson began the third round on seven under par, a shot clear of Parnevik and Faxon. At the third, he chipped in from 40 feet for a birdie three, but at the short fourth he hoiked his tee shot into one of the sandhills on the left and could not save his par. A birdie at the long seventh had got Watson back to eight under par before his Achilles' heel re-emerged with spiteful vengeance twice in the middle of the back nine. At both the 14th and 16th, three-foot putts for par stayed out. Valiant birdies at the 17th and 18th helped repair the damage, but the mental scars will not be eradicated so easily.

The received wisdom is that Turnberry's benign greens would enable Watson to overcome his short-putt phobia and repeat his victory here of 1977. If he is to achieve what would be a massively popular triumph today, it will require a great deal of resilience as well as brilliant shot-making.

Feherty and Rafferty are an unlikely Ulster double act, the former a well-known joker, the latter renowned for his poker- face. Whereas Rafferty played down his chances, Feherty, who had previously said he might as well win the Open because he had nothing else to do this weekend, added: 'But I think I would be one of millions who would be shocked if I did. I have been worried about my driving and I was down to a one-iron on the last tee, just trying to keep the ball in Scotland.'

He credited Seve Ballesteros with having encouraged him to work on his short game for the improvement in that department. Feherty and Parnevik have both emigrated to the US Tour from Europe this season. Yesterday, wearing his distinctive baseball cap, which makes him resemble a competitor in the Tour de France, Parnevik started steadily but the wheels temporarily came off as he bogeyed the fifth and sixth. Then, with impressive assurance, he picked up four shots.

The defending champion, and winner at Turnberry eight years ago, is Greg Norman. When he had three birdies going out to get to five under par, he seemed destined to be in close contention going into the last day. But the fact that he had missed from four feet for further birdies at both the seventh and eighth proved to be the more accurate precursor of the fate that awaited him on the back nine. 'I didn't make enough putts,' he said afterwards. 'I'm obviously misreading them, hitting the ball around the edge of the hole and missing by an inch.'

One thing he he did not miss was Wilson's Burn on the 16th. Needing only a sand- wedge into the green, he mis-hit it and resignedly watched his ball roll down the bank and into the limpid waters. The result was a double-bogey six. 'I was in the ball game up until then,' he said. 'Now there are too many guys between me and the top of the leader-board.'

This week, Turnberry has held few terrors unless you were Nick Faldo playing the wrong ball or John Daly losing one. With 119 sub-70 rounds in the first three days, the Open record of 116 - set at Sandwich last year - has been broken with a day to spare.

Yesterday, the breeze was barely a zephyr. The course saw more birdies than the sanctuary at Ailsa Craig. Anders Forsbrand, who could not break 100 at the French Open three weeks ago, had 66 here. But 66s were mundane. There were eight of those, along with two 64s (Larry Mize was in company with Zoeller) and two 65s. Level-par 70 was mediocre. 'The real par is about 67,' said Nick Faldo after such a 70 during which he and his putter remained unreconciled. 'I wouldn't be surprised if someone scores 62 today, maybe something even lower.'

Another three-time winner of the championship, Seve Ballesteros, had a 71. Given that he birdied four of the final five holes, he might have been expected to have gained ground. As it was, the damage had chiefly been done with an outward half of 38 and he even had to be satisfied with the official par on a day when very few other golfers had to live with that ignominy.

For the most part, however, it was the defenceless Ailsa Course that suffered.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Card of the course ----------------------------------------------------------------- Hole Yards Par Hole Yards Par 1st 350 4 10th 452 4 2nd 428 4 11th 177 3 3rd 462 4 12th 448 4 4th 167 3 13th 411 4 5th 441 4 14th 440 4 6th 222 3 15th 209 3 7th 528 5 16th 410 4 8th 430 4 17th 498 5 9th 452 4 18th 432 4 Out: 3,480 35 In: 3,477 35 Total: 6,957 70 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph and third round scores omitted)