Clarke must lift his game again to catch Ernie

Darren Clarke has been tipped for The Open so many times there must be bookmakers with Spanish villas named after him. Next week promises to be no different after a 64 yesterday sent the Ulsterman hurtling up the Scottish Open leaderboard. You could almost hear the 33-1 being gobbled up.

While it is true that the 34-year-old never quite got to Ernie Els yesterday, there are not many golfers ­ now, or in history ­ who could live with the South African in this current mood. A 67 that was sickening in its ease took the reigning Open champion to 15-under and gave him a five-shot lead which will require Clarke and Philip Price to summon something superhuman to overturn. There are swans on the loch that have looked more awkward than Els here this week.

Not to say that Clarke hasn't got the superhuman in him. When a golfer says: "A 64 was probably the worst score I could have shot today," you know he is playing well. Indeed, if he had not missed a five-footer on the first and a four-footer on the 13th, then Clarke would have matched the day's low of Peter O'Malley. Still, seven birdies and no bogeys would have helped cushion that blow.

"I will probably have to do even better tomorrow if I want to catch Ernie," said Clarke, and Els himself was not about to disagree. "The way I'm playing, somebody's got to go very low to catch me," he said.

But there was a note, if a faint one, of caution. Els confessed he had once surrendered a five-shot lead while an amateur and in March he saw a three-shot lead overhauled by Robert Jan-Derksen in the final round in Dubai. "Five shots sounds a lot," he said, "but in a way that makes you more worried about it."

A bogey on the 16th, after four earlier birdies, worried Els to such an extent that this most laid-back of players even punched the air when he holed a 10-footer for a birdie on the 18th. "After dropping that shot on 16 I told my caddie that I really wanted it back on one of the last two. So, yes, that was nice."

But maybe not for Price, who stuck valiantly to his playing partner until the 18th, where he could not roll in his own 12-footer. Nevertheless, a 68 meant that Price is level with Clarke and in contention once more after his victory in the European Open seven days ago. The Welshman could just prove the dark horse in The Open field.

Earlier O'Malley was denied a share of Retief Goosen's 1997 course record only because of the preferred lies in operation due to the boggy conditions. The 38-year-old equalled his own personal best, as well, to help him leap from 44th to fourth. The Australian's previous 62 also came at this tournament ­ in the wholly different setting and conditions of Gleneagles in 1992 ­ when he so memorably played the last five holes in seven under to pip Colin Montgomerie.

Yesterday the home favourite, with a one-over-par 72, gave an encore of Friday's miserable performance on the greens, which had led one Scottish newspaper to comment that he had done a "Basil Fawlty" when burying his head in his hands and manically waving around his putter after yet another slipped by.

But for John Daly it was more a case of "don't mention the draw" as he pulled his way into the heavy stuff on so many occasions that he followed his second-round 66 with a 77 yesterday. What will it be today ­ a 55 or an 88?

Meanwhile, Tiger Woods' website was taking even more hits than Daly yesterday as he revealed that the left knee that required surgery last year is not the reason why he forsook his usual trip to Ireland to practise before The Open. Instead, Woods stayed at home in Florida "to work on my game and enjoy some peace and quiet". The world No 1 said he is happy with his form and is looking forward to Royal St George's, which he has heard "is kind of funky".

This would undoubtedly have raised a few bushy eyebrows in the Members' Bar at Sandwich. They have heard their exclusive club called many things, but "kind of funky"? "Steward, what exactly does Mr Woods mean?"

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