Golf: The 121st Open: Faldo casts a long shadow: The favourite goes into the final day four strokes ahead of the field and within sight of his third Open title in six years

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The Independent Online
AT 3.20 yesterday afternoon crowds lined the fairway and ringed the green of the first hole at Muirfield. In places they were three deep. Even the 6ft 4in figure of George Faldo had to stand on tiptoe to watch his son begin the third round of the 121st Open.

At that point Faldo led by three strokes. He had a testing four-foot putt on the opening green, and as he addressed it the only sound to be heard was the doleful screaming of a seagull overhead. When the putt rattled into the hole a roar went up. 'Come on Nick]' The game was on.

In pursuit of his third Open title, Faldo was remorseless throughout a grey and breezy afternoon on the Firth of Forth. He began the round with a comfortable cushion, and he ended it having extended his lead by one stroke. His 69 was his third score in the sixties in this tournament and his seventh below 70 in succession. He has been over par only three times in the 39 rounds he has played in Europe this year. His total of 199 equals the Open's 54-hole record which he himself set in 1990. It means that he takes the comfortable but not fireproof cushion of four strokes into the final round today, just as he did at St Andrews two years ago.

Steve Pate and John Cook are his nearest challengers, four strokes behind. Gordon Brand Jnr, Donnie Hammond and Ernie Els trail Faldo by six strokes, and Jose Maria Olazabal and Chip Beck by seven.

Faldo's 69 was almost, but not quite, a vintage one. That is to say that by his own high standards it fell some way short of the near- perfect round he had produced on Friday. After that demonstration even David Leadbetter, his coach, was moved to say: 'I have never seen Nick swing better than he is now.' Truly there are occasions, and this was one of them, when a man is hero even to his valet.

However, as Faldo himself was quick to point out, his 69 yesterday was carved out while he was experiencing the crushing force of the day's pressure. 'There were two 67s and they were the low rounds of the day,' said Faldo. 'They were compiled by men who were not under pressure. My 69 shows that I was playing a different animal.'

Perhaps it is time to put Faldo into perspective, regardless of what might happen over these historic links today. He is quite simply the best British golfer of this century and the most methodical golfer the world has seen since Ben Hogan. He may not be the flashing, dashing genius that is Ballesteros, and thus there is no doubt he is a less exciting player to watch, but the sustained quality of his golf this year has had to be seen to be believed.

The measure of a man is his stature in a crisis. 'What's he made of?' they say. 'Has he got any bottle?'. Well, by the 10th hole yesterday Faldo's lead had been wiped out. He took only his second bogey of the championships at about the same time that Pate was scoring his fifth birdie of his round.

Faldo's response could hardly have come more quickly. He birdied the 12th to regain the lead, and as he did so the challenge to him evaporated. It was as if his rivals had decided that they had their hands full concentrating on their own faltering scores. And they certainly had. Pate, for example, had had an up-and-down round to this point. It contained six birdies, one bogey and one double bogey in 12 holes.

Perhaps it was also that on certain occasions, and this was one of them just as the second play-off hole at Augusta against Ray Floyd in 1990 was another, when Faldo casts such a shadow that he intimidates his opponents as soon as they come anywhere near him.

Pate finished a rollercoaster of a day with a 69 that contained seven birdies, four bogeys and one double bogey. There was a possibility that he would be penalised an extra stroke after an incident on the fifth when it seemed he had grounded his club and then addressed a moving ball. Later, Michael Bonallack, the secretary of the Royal and Ancient, and Neil Roach, chairman of the championship committee, questioned Pate but decided there had not been a breach of the rules.

Brand, who had started so resolutely, got to the 12th before he dropped a shot, but then he struggled to finish in 72. Cook had a 70 which was highlighted when he chipped in from 25 yards on the ninth for an eagle three.

Victory now seems to be beyond the reach of Beck, but he didn't half improve his standing with a 67. He is a straight hitter, determined, quiet and workmanlike. A former journalism student, he produced one of the most memorable quotes in golf when, after he had been beaten by Seve Ballesteros in the world matchplay championship, he said: 'It is sometimes necessary to be forged in the crucible of humiliation.'

Beck made few mistakes, despite being warned for slow play twice, going to the turn in 32 and coming home in 35. Also on 206 is Olazabal, who is finding his way back to form a little falteringly. A month ago at Pebble Beach he was beside himself with depression at missing the cut in the US Open. His manager, Sergio Gomez, withdrew him from the French Open and Olazabal retired to his home in northern Spain. For a week he did nothing but watch television, see films, play table tennis and take a young dog out and train it for quail hunting.

His appetite for golf slowly returned. He began practising and playing 36 holes each day at nearby courses and last weekend he participated in a Skins game in Spain. He flew to Scotland refreshed if not quite match fit. 'So far it has been a combination of good luck, good play and good putting,' he said. Two enormous putts were the bedrock of his 69, one of 12 yards on the 12th and one of 18 yards for an eagle on the 17th. 'That was much better,' said Olazabal. 'But I'm much too far behind to catch Nick.' By rights everyone else is too. Although he has wobbled dangerously on occasions this season Faldo ought, by rights, to win his third Open championship and his fifth major title this afternoon.

More Open coverage, page 31

Today's tee-off times, page 31

Marcus Berkmann, page 26

(Photograph omitted)