Hit-and-miss Clarke battles to keep Singh in sight

Darren Clarke lost the lead but maintained his challenge at the 86th US PGA Championship. Entirely at home on the links-looking Whistling Straits, the Irishman set out on his 36th birthday yesterday just a stroke behind the nine-under-par leaders Vijay Singh and Justin Leonard.

In terms of not knowing quite what was going to happen next, Darren Clarke had quite a 36th birthday at the 86th US PGA Championship. Clarke has enjoyed the challenge of Whistling Straits to the full but experienced the best and worst of times in the third round yesterday.

Two early bogeys were followed by almost holing a wedge shot for an eagle at the 11th ­ the hole where he took a double bogey on Friday after aiming at the "wrong" television camera tower ­ and sinking a long putt from the fringe at the 12th.

But on the tee at the 223-yard 17th hole Clarke hit a shank, his third in recent times but unlike the one at Royal Troon in 1997, it was away from the beach. He finished 70 yards off line, and a bogey followed. "That's as good a shank as you are ever likely to see," the Irishman said, cheerfully enough in the circumstances.

At least he avoided the triple bogey that destroyed Briny Baird's challenge after going down the bank on the left of the same hole. Clarke, the first-round leader, finished with an eventful 72 at eight under par alongside the Masters champion Phil Mickelson and the year's major nearly man, Ernie Els.

After Els bogeyed the last there were only two players in front of them. Vijay Singh shot a 69 to be 12 under par and one ahead of Justin Leonard. It should be another thrilling final day with Leonard, ominously for Clarke, the Open champion in '97 and Singh the US PGA winner six years ago.

Mickelson gave himself a chance to continue his amazing streak of finishing in the top three in the majors with a blistering outward half of 31. Twice he holed from long range on the greens, at the fifth for par and at the next for birdie.

The left-handed American had to consolidate after dropping a shot at the 11th but saved par at the last from five feet for a 67. "I was hoping to get to 10 under starting the day and I knew I had to take advantage of the early holes," he said. "But the last few holes were difficult and I was just trying to get as close to the leaders as possible."

Tiger Woods, who created a little excitement on Friday but only for making the cut, also got off to a good start yesterday with three birdies in the first five holes but stalled at three under. Depending on what Els does today, Tiger could lose his world No 1 position just when he is tied with Greg Norman on 331 weeks at the top.

Brian Davis dropped a stroke at the last and is at six under after a 69 but Luke Donald bogeyed the last two to fall a stroke further back. While Donald may get a Ryder Cup wild card, Davis was in prime position for a place at the start of the year but struggled for form in the middle of the season. Refreshed after a two-week holiday in Portugal following The Open, Davis, down to 14th place in the standings, is making a determined bid to make the team.

"I was dreadful earlier in the year, really struggling," Davis said. "Nothing seemed to go right. I was disappointed to bogey the last but considering what I have gone through recently it is nice to be back in the mix."

Colin Montgomerie had a morning to forget after taking a nine at the fifth in a 78. It was hardly what Montgomerie wanted after he talked of not wanting to have to rely on being picked for the Ryder Cup team by captain Bernhard Langer.

While Hal Sutton makes his wild-card selections tomorrow, the Europeans still have two more tournaments in order to qualify, this weekís NEC World Invitational at Firestone and then the BMW International in Munich, but Monty will now have to be thinking about winning one of them to have a chance of getting in automatically.

Ian Poulter, Paul McGinley and David Howell, who was playing with Langer yesterday, both finished with 70s and are unlikely to get into the field for Firestone. Poulter was going to head home tonight first class in any case and hope he had to return. Howell was just relieved to feel better with his game after practising poorly while playing with the captain earlier in the week.

Though Langer's decisions may be difficult the German wants it no other way. "There are going to be some disappointed guys but it is better to have lots of players going well," he said. "It shows how much they want to make the team." Langer has organised a team dinner for Tuesday for all the potential candidates.

Stuart Appleby fell victim to thinking a bunker outside the ropes at the 16th was a waste area. The Australian was penalised two strokes for removing some grass and two strokes for grounding his club so fell from five under to one under.

This spectacular course by Lake Michigan is not what it appears. "It looks like a links, it smells like a links," David Feherty said, "but it plays like Pete Dye target golf with a strange haircut."

Clarke overcame an aberration at the par-five 11th hole, his second, in the second round when he took aim at the wrong television tower and ended up with a double bogey. "I thought it was perfect but Billy [Foster, his caddie] asked which tower I had been aiming at," Clarke explained.

"I said the one on the right but he said it should have been the one on the left. It was completely my fault. I wasn't paying attention."

But Clarke composed himself to rally for a 71 to share third place with Ernie Els and Briny Baird. Padraig Harrington again finished well to be four behind, while Luke Donald was at four-under.

With the injured Retief Goosen looking after his house in Orlando, which was in the flight path of Hurricane Charley, Els had once more put himself into contention. "It's fun, but it's definitely hard work as well," said Els. "I'm trying to make it fun. The rewards are worth it. I'm still waiting for the reward this year."

Tiger Woods created much excitement on Friday afternoon but hardly for the right reasons. It was another brilliant escape act to make the cut. He was three-under for the last six holes, which included birdies at two of the last three holes, but being three-over for the first 30 holes was less impressive.

The streak continues. He has only ever missed one cut in eight years as a professional and his streak on the US Tour, which dates back to early in 1998 when he failed to return for the postponed final round of a rain-delayed tournament, now stands at 129. He has made the cut in all 32 majors as a professional.

But the improved form Woods had shown of late deserted him for much of the first two days. "The one thing I am most proud of is that I have never bagged it," Tiger said. "I've never dogged it. I've tried hard from the first hole all the way to the 18th."

By making the cut, Woods prevented Singh having any chance of becoming the world No 1 when the new ranking is released tomorrow. But a victory today for Els could still deny Tiger the chance of overtaking Greg Norman's record of 331 weeks at the top of the ranking.

But whether Woods could still have an impact on the championship - given that he has not won any of the last nine majors and properly contended in few of them - was dependent on his start yesterday.

With the sun out for the first time in the week and hardly any wind, conditions were as kind as they could be and Woods took advantage. He chipped and putted for his four at the par-five second, hit his tee shot at the short third to six feet and holed from five feet for his third birdie of the morning at the fifth.

Meanwhile, Colin Montgomerie had a morning to forget. His problems all came with a nine at the par-five fifth. His drive found the pond on the right and he had to drop on a forward tee. From there he found a bunker, put his next into deep rough, finally chopped back on to the fairway, reached the green for six and three-putted.

The Scot went on to bogey the next and the eighth for a front nine of 42 and at the time he was propping up the field. It was hardly what Montgomerie wanted after he talked of not wanting to have to rely on being picked for the Ryder Cup team by captain Bernhard Langer.

While Hal Sutton makes his wild card selections tomorrow, the Europeans still have two more tournaments in order to qualify, this week's NEC World Invitational at Firestone and then the BMW International in Munich but Monty will now have to be thinking about winning one of them to have a chance of getting in automatically.

Apart from making the cut himself, there has been plenty of other good news for Langer this week. An impressive 16 Europeans qualified for the weekend, with David Howell, currently eighth in the Ryder Cup standings, playing alongside the captain yesterday.

Clarke on Thursday and Miguel Angel Jimenez on Friday produced the best scores of the week with their 65s but this spectacular course on the banks of Lake Michigan is not quite what it seems. It is a brilliant creation by Pete Dye, who also did the Stadium course at Sawgrass, although spectators did not come high on his lists of priorities.

So severe are the banks that for the first time at a major championship body surfing has been seen. As to how the course actually plays, David Feherty came up with a typically apt description. "It looks like a links, it smells like a links," Feherty said, "but it plays like Pete Dye target golf with a strange haircut."

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