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Clarke on a roll but the US cavalry are closing

Ulster anticipates another champion but Johnson and Co have other ideas

Darren Clarke continues to roll up the putts, roll up the cigarettes and roll back the years. And if he can conjure another performance in the sweetly struck style of yesterday's 69, they will at last roll out the Open's red carpet to hail the big, genial Irishman.

The 42-year-old is one clear and in sight of the major that everybody but Clarke and his closest contacts had regarded as long gone down that highway called Wasted Chances. On a day when the oldest championship yet again revealed its propensity to allow Mother Nature free rein, Clarke grasped the initiative and grabbed the imagination.

Is Northern Ireland really on the verge of its third different champion in six majors? The ecstatic cheers which greeted Clarke's march up to the 18th green suggested that Ulster should prepare for yet another wild Sunday evening. On five-under, Clarke – ranked 111th in the world and written off as a 200-1 outsider on Wednesday – leads Dustin Johnson, with two shots back to Rickie Fowler and Thomas Bjorn in third.

What an opportunity now presents itself to Clarke, a man who was so despondent with his putting when he arrived in Sandwich he consultednot just one sports psychologist but two. The work he did with Dr Bob Rotella has freed up this very complex mind and allowed his natural talent to take over. Tee to green, he was at a different level to anybody else in the field. Clarke still left a few shots out there – as he said "five or six putts touched the edges" – but he is not putting badly and more importantly, is not taking it badly. As he walked off to rapturous acclaim he didn't seem to have a care in the world. The trick will be whether he can reprise the act today. He must believe that if he can hole a few he could win at a canter.

Yet however much the home galleries yearn for their Ryder Cup hero – for the man with a tummy up his jumper and a Rizla in his gob – bitter experience of "19 failed attempts" informs him this Open is a long way from done. But he will have the crowd to himself. Clarke is on his own up there, the only player from the United Kingdom in the top 16. There are a few other Euros to focus on; Bjorn who remains determined to squash the demons of Sandwich of 2003 on two under, Miguel Angel Jimenez on one-under and Martin Kaymer on level. Otherwise Clarke is being stalked by a clutch of Americans. There are six in the top 12.

So much for the Stateside challenge boasting no stars and even fewer stripes, so much for the United Flakes of America. The boys from across the pond have moved into contention and lurking on level par includes the likes of Anthony Kim and, get this, Phil Mickelson. Remember Lefty, the four-time major winner who has enjoyed but one top-10 in the Open in 17 appearances? A 71 has presented the 41-year-old with a highly unfamiliar but alluring sniff. Yet Johnson and Rickie Fowler are flying the flag most obviously.

The pair have heard all about their country's record winless run in the majors which stands at five. They have seen the likes of Rory McIlroy and Kaymer held up as the future and England's Luke Donald, the world No 1, and Lee Westwood, the world No 2, hailed as the present. And they have responded.

It is the third time in six majors Johnson goes into the final round in contention. Don't mention the first time. Or, indeed, the second time. At last year's US Open at Pebble Beach, Johnson shot an 82 when holding the 54-hole lead. And then at the USPGA at Whistling Straits two months later, the 27-year-old was leading by one walking up the last hole. This time he grounded his club in a dusty patch he did not realise was a bunker and the resulting one-shot penalty saw him miss the play-off by a stroke. Up to now, Johnson has been to majors what John Daly was to gambling.

But all this might change and the long hitter who has long been touted as America's next big thing has all the tools to deliver. Yesterday's 68 bore all the hallmarks of a champion. There were four bogeys but three times he responded with a birdie.

Fowler might be considered to have a mountain in front of him, seeing as he is two behind Johnson and three off Clarke. But the California kid will be aware that shots at the seaside are in the habit of disappearing like confetti in the wind and is confident of a victory which would not only be his first in the majors but his first in the professional ranks. "I'm in a perfect place going into tomorrow," said Fowler. "Just need to make some putts. I'd love for my first win to be a major and I'd love for it to be here."

While Fowler embraced the conditions, his playing partner and fellow 22-year-old tried to push them away. McIlroy now requires something of the miraculous to win his second major in succession. At four-over he has been outscored by six strokes in three rounds by Fowler. It hasn't been disastrous, but it hasn't lived up to Congressional three weeks ago. Inevitable, really. McIlroy recognises he has plenty to learn and will have done so from the young man next to him. The creativity Fowler shows on the links mark him as a certain Open winner of the future and that future may well be this evening.

McIlroy will be cheering on his mentor. He enrolled in Clarke's foundation as a 12-year-old and then spent so long under the big man's wing. McIlroy was actually only eight when Clarke came so close in the 1997 Open, but would have sensed the frustration of Clarke remaining majorless. "Darren's waited a long time to win that major," said McIlroy. "And it would be great if this week was the week when he landed his first one. I'm going back to watch how he gets on."

And sothe clouds cleared and Clarke was able to stride away in what bizarrely turned out to be a pleasant evening. It was cruel on the morning starters (although some will point out if they performed more valiantly on the opening days they would not have been teeing off so early). The rain lashed down, the wind howled and a few of the many thousands of spectators who quite ridiculously braved the elements swore they heard the old links chuckle.

Consider that before Fowler's 68, 43 players had signed for scores at least four worse. Trevor Immelman's 72 was commendable, Tom Watson's 72 incredible. "There's an old saying 'swing with ease into the breeze'," said Watson. "But a lot of the time you see these young kids trying to hit very hard. I can't hit it hard. I'm 61."

Advice to follow today. The forecast is for more of the same, which will give the pacesetters yet more purpose in their stride. Clarke in particular. Believe it, this could just be his moment.


(GB & Ire unless stated, *=amateur, par 70)

205 Darren Clarke 68 68 69

206 Dustin Johnson (US) 70 68 68

208 Rickie Fowler (US) 70 70 68; Thomas Bjorn (Den) 65 72 71

209 Miguel Angel Jimenez (Sp) 66 71 72; Lucas Glover (US) 66 70 73

210 Anthony Kim (US) 72 68 70; Phil Mickelson (US) 70 69 71; Anders Hansen (Den) 69 69 72; George Coetzee (SA) 69 69 72; Davis Love III (US) 70 68 72; Martin Kaymer (Ger) 68 69 73

211 Zach Johnson (US) 72 68 71; Ryan Palmer (US) 68 71 72; Tom Lehman (US) 71 67 73; Chad Campbell (US) 69 68 74

212 Raphaël Jacquelin (Fr) 74 67 71; Simon Dyson 68 72 72; Steve Stricker (US) 69 71 72; Webb Simpson (US) 66 74 72; Adam Scott (Aus) 69 70 73

213 Fredrik Jacobson (Swe) 70 70 73; Y E Yang (S Kor) 71 69 73; Charl Schwartzel (SA) 71 67 75

214 Tom Watson (US) 72 70 72; Trevor Immelman (SA) 70 72 72; Charles Howell III (US) 71 70 73; Richard Green (Aus) 70 71 73; Rory McIlroy 71 69 74; Sergio Garcia (Sp) 70 70 74; Robert Rock 69 71 74; Pablo Larrazabal (Sp) 68 70 76

215 Bo van Pelt (US) 73 69 73; Bubba Watson (US) 69 72 74; Yuta Ikeda (Japan) 69 71 75; Tom Lewis* 65 74 76

216 Louis Oosthuizen (SA) 72 70 74; Richard McEvoy 69 72 75; Noh Seung-yul (S Kor) 69 72 75; Robert Allenby (Aus) 69 72 75

217 Gary Woodland (US) 75 68 74; Peter Uihlein (US)* 71 71 75; Mark Wilson (US) 74 68 75; Gary Boyd 71 70 76; Jason Day (Aus) 71 70 76; Kyle Stanley (US) 68 72 77; Jeff Overton (US) 68 71 78

218 K J Choi (S Kor) 71 72 75; Henrik Stenson (Swe) 72 71 75; Jim Furyk (US) 72 70 76; Kenneth Ferrie 71 71 76; Stewart Cink (US) 70 71 77; Stephen Gallacher 70 71 77; Rory Sabbatini (SA) 71 70 77

219 Ryan Moore (US) 69 74 76; Floris de Vries (Hol) 70 73 76; Edoardo Molinari (It) 69 74 76; Harrison Frazar (US) 72 70 77

220 Grégory Bourdy (Fr) 73 70 77; Simon Khan 71 72 77; Fredrik Andersson Hed (Swe) 68 75 77; Ricky Barnes (US) 68 74 78

221 Paul Casey 74 69 78; Grégory Havret (Fr) 72 71 78; Bill Haas (US) 72 70 79; Justin Rose 72 70 79; Joost Luiten (Hol) 73 69 79

222 Spencer Levin (US) 72 69 81

223 Matthew Millar (Aus) 71 72 80

224 Paul Lawrie 73 70 81

225 Hwang Jung-gon (S Kor) 68 74 83