Howell plays president as Jimenez sings in rain

Strong finish puts Englishman in command but Spaniard lurks

There is one man so obviously in charge here that this may as well be the West Wing and not the West Course. Sure, Miguel Angel Jimenez averted a landslide with a vote-winning 65 but still David Howell maintained a three-shot lead in the BMW Championship. Unfurl the flag, swear him in.

But Howell's cushion did not always seem so comfortable yesterday as the rain soaked everything and Nick Dougherty's challenge sank in front of him. The young Englishman showed how effortlessly this place can drag you down - Dougherty's 74 leaving Paul Casey and Simon Khan as the nearest English pursuers on eight-under - and Howell must be applauded for a gutsy birdie-birdie finish that advanced him to 14-under with a 69.

Surely only the "Mechanic" can catch him today and then only if Jimenez can engineer something just as special as yesterday. "It will be a meeting of gentlemen," said the 42-year-old. "David's a great golfer."

Exactly how great is starting to become apparent. Unassuming lads from Swindon are not supposed to bring Europe to heel, but should Howell prevail in the Tour's flagship then he really will have traversed the oceans in an incredible 12 months. Beating Tiger Woods in China in November was something, but humbling the best this continent has to offer is the authenticity he has been chasing. "I won't get ahead of myself," said Howell with typical modesty. "Miguel's playing fantastically and I must be wary of that."

Indeed, Jimenez's heroics overshadowed Jean van de Velde's 66 although his last 33 holes that he has played in a remarkable 11-under remain in a sunlight of their very own. The Frenchman has always tweaked the nose of convention and yesterday he smashed the bridge in two when getting from his bed to the first tee in under 56 minutes.

"I was lying there peacefully at 9.04 when I rang to see what my tee-off time was," said Van de Velde who is 40 tomorrow. "I thought it would be about 11 o'clock, but I was wrong by an hour. I had to shorten my warm-up time by about 50minutes but it was OK - I've hit enough balls in my life." Most of them, in folklore, down the 18th at Carnoustie to blow The Open in 1999.

Van de Velde will forever be remembered for that, no matter what he does. At least he tries to escape the memory; his latest barge into the fairways being his threat to wear a skirt and reciprocate Michelle Wie's appearance among the men with his own among the women. When the announcement came that Wie would be making her debut on the European Tour at Crans-sur-Sierre in September it was widely assumed that Van de Velde would make a stand against the move.

Not so, he declared yesterday, he will be happy to line up alongside the 16-year-old phenomenon. "People forget that I'm the only member of the Tour who's played with a woman," he said, remembering that he partnered Laura Davies when she appeared in here ill-fated appearance in Australia two years ago. "I'm not against Michelle. I'm against the fact it goes one way and not the other."

After what he has been through, it might be suspected he would not bother himself with such trivialities (after all is he really that daft not to realise that he is in the main game and everything else is an offshoot that will inevitably feed into it?). Since he became Calamity Jean his life has gone from perverse to bad with a failed marriage and two knee operations.

"Not to sound too dramatic, but I was wondering if I was going to play competitively again," he said, thinking back to his lost Tour card and the far more serious threat of amputation. "There was one huge question mark?"

He has since answered it spectacularly - despite his knee frequently dislocating when out on the course - primarily when winning his first event in Madeira since 1993 and now by moving to six-under and into the top five alongside Padraig Harrington and Dougherty. "I didn't miss a green today," he said. "I can't remember the last time I did that. Probably when I was dreaming in my bed this morning?"

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