Clarke carries on blasting away to spoil Schwartzel's big game hunt

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Now for the hard part. After a six-under-par 65 at the Scottish Open here yesterday, Darren Clarke enters the weekend three shots clear of the field at 11-under and with a first win on European soil for four years on the radar. Not since the English Open in 2002 has the 37-year-old Ulsterman hoisted a trophy on his own continent.

A trio of players, including Ireland's Damien McGrane, head the chasing pack on eight-under, with two others on seven-under and another half a dozen six shots awry. Even Clarke's opponents were rooting for him yesterday. " Darren played very well today and if he plays anything like that over the weekend then he should be OK," said Colin Montgomerie, his playing partner these past two days, who himself carded a 66 to move to four-under.

"I'd be delighted to see him win. His troubles are well broadcast [Clarke's wife, Heather, is battling breast cancer] and I wish him well. He can win this now. He is playing as well as I have seen anyone in Europe this year and if anyone deserves a win, he does."

Clarke made three birdies in a flawless opening nine holes, and added four more on the way home at the expense of one bogey, on the 11th, a par-three. "I had a lot of putts for the 10-12 feet range for birdies and unfortunately missed a few," he said. "But overall, six-under is pretty good. I've been in contention here a few times before and it's good to be up there again for the weekend."

Ernie Els will also still be around, something that seemed unlikely when he had seven holes to play yesterday and was in 80th place and apparently on his way out. He has not missed a halfway cut in a European tour event since 1999 ­ 76 events ago ­ yet the end of the run was staring him in the face. An eagle on his 12th hole (the third, having started on the back nine) followed by two birdies saved his day.

He said afterwards that his 245-yard five-wood to within 10 feet on the third was "the turning point", hopefully not just here but for the rest of the season. For the moment, Els is being upstaged by a whippersnapper countryman.

Charl Schwartzel, easier to watch than say, is a stick-thin South African with a penchant for big game. He does not like wind for fear he will be blown away but luckily for the 21-year-old from Johannesburg, the breeze here was as flat as a Cape buffalo's pulse after a good day's hunting.

Upholding a tradition of excellence by compatriots at this event, Schwartzel went out in par 36 then rattled home in 30 with five birdies in the last seven holes. His five-under-par 66, for an eight-under tally of 134, gave him a share of the clubhouse lead for most of the day with Sweden's Johan Edfors, who hit a 69 to add to his 65 from Thursday. That was before Clarke started his blitz.

Edfors had tied for the lead overnight on six-under with Scotland's David Drysdale, a 31-year-old from Dunbar who gets so nervous on the first tee that he keeps his breakfast to a minimum. Yesterday, Drysdale limited himself to half a bacon roll and "a couple of puffs on the cigarette" before going out. He kept his nerve, and kept down his food, and though his round was hardly smoking, he carded a one-under 70 to finish the day on seven-under.

Schwartzel is the latest in an illustrious line of men from the land of the springbok to make an impression, not least here. Tim Clark is the defending champion. Els won here in 2000 and 2003. Retief Goosen, the world No 4 and highest-ranked player in attendance, won in 2001.

Clark scored a 67 yesterday to stay well in the chase at six under, while Els rallied late in his round to avoid to ignominy of a missed cut. He resumes at three-under today, as does Goosen, after a 69 yesterday.

"The golf course here is a lot like courses we have back home," Schwartzel said. "It's got quite wide fairways and I think it suits our eye. I love it."

Asked about this best-ever showing here, at his fourth attempt, he credited the weather: blue skies, no wind, and a temperature in the 80s. "The weather conditions are more like what I'm used to," he said. "I haven't got enough weight [he is 6ft tall, and 9st 12lb] and I guess I get blown away by the wind. If the weather is like this, I can perform."

Yesterday's lowest rounds were 64s, carded by Argentina's Andres Romero and Denmark's Thomas Bjorn. Both resume today at six-under, as does Lee Westwood after a 67.