The Open 2004

Hamilton enjoys view from the summit after trek from the elephant's graveyard

Todd Hamilton, the American who is more familiar in Japan than in his home country, went head to head with Ernie Els yesterday, and not only did he outscore the great South African but he mastered Royal Troon as well.

Todd Hamilton, the American who is more familiar in Japan than in his home country, went head to head with Ernie Els yesterday, and not only did he outscore the great South African but he mastered Royal Troon as well.

Hamilton has been around, although not really in this neck of the woods. "I think it's a big factor that I've played golf all over the world,'' he said. "In hot conditions, cold, windy, calm, and I think the more you do that, the more you can be comfortable. The wind might change direction and blow twice as hard but I'm all right with that. As long as I can play smart and make a few putts here and there I'll do just fine."

Even so, the 38-year-old who grew up in Oquwawka (population 1,500), went to college in Oklahoma and who now lives in McKinney, Texas, got his first sight of Troon last Tuesday. Incidentally, Oquwawka is an Indian village on the Mississippi River and the name means "yellow banks". An elephant is buried beneath the town square. Don't ask.

This is only Hamilton's fourth appearance in The Open. In 1992 he missed the cut at Muirfield, in 1996 he was joint 44th at Royal Lytham, and last year he missed the cut at Royal St George's. He had never broken 70.

Yet here he enters the final round as the outright leader on eight under par for the championship following a second successive 67. In his past four tournaments on the US Tour, he missed the cut in three of them and was joint 59th in the other.

"I haven't played well for two or three months," he admitted. "It was nice to finally find some form. This is the kind of course on which you can hit a lot of good shots and they might end up poor, and you can hit a lot of poor shots that can end up good. I'm just trying to be patient and trying to make sure I stay out of the bunkers, because they are truly hazards."

The thing is that Hamilton does not consider himself to be a major contender. "I don't consider myself to be a great ball-striker, so if I go out and I don't hit a lot of good shots I'm comfortable with that, whereas some guy who usually hits the ball really well but has a bad day starts thinking what he's doing wrong. I'm just the opposite. If I start hitting good shots I wonder what I'm doing. But I do think that I'm playing smart, and that's the kind of style you need to show over here. You need to think your way around, and if you hit a bad shot you have to take your medicine."

Oh, and he's got a bad back. "It's been a little sore so I haven't really done a whole lot. I've been trying to keep it from getting too stiff."

Hamilton has played the Canadian Tour, the Asian Tour and the Japanese Tour, and on the latter he has recorded 11 victories in 11 years. In 1992 he won the Thailand Open and the Korean Open. Last season he qualified, on his eighth attempt, at the qualifying school for the US Tour, and earlier in the year won the Honda Classic and with it $900,000 (£480,000). Of course, the motor manufacturers must have reminded him of Japan.

Yesterday Hamilton went to the turn in 33 and came home in 34, one of the smartest rounds of the afternoon. He amassed four birdies, including a two at the Postage Stamp and another at the 14th, and did not record a single bogey on his card.

Els, Hamilton's playing partner, had a 68 to stand at seven under and lost ground on Hamilton when he took a bogey four at the eighth, the hole on which he celebrated an ace during the first round on Thursday.

"The first couple of years when I was touring abroad was quite difficult," Hamilton said. "But I think that in the long run it has worked in my favour. I'm glad I went through all that patience-building, I guess you could call it. I'm glad that I didn't come right out of college, get my Tour card and think that it was all gravy. I'm glad I went through some ups and downs."

Do you really want to know about the poor elephant? "In 1974 a travelling circus came into Oqu-wawka," Hamilton explained. "There was an elephant called Norma Jean that was chained to a tree. There was a storm, lightning struck the tree, went through the metal chain and killed the elephant right on the spot. They decided they would bury Norma Jean in our town square. I swear to god."

Today in the fourth and final round of the 133rd Open Championship, Hamilton will again be partnered by Els, and the American and the South African will be the last pair to tee off in pursuit of the old silver Claret Jug. If Todd manages to pull it off, the town square of his home town would have an exhibit to rival the late, lamented Norma Jean.

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