Price takes charge as Irish favourite fails to deliver

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The Independent Online

When Phillip Price beat Phil Mickelson during the Ryder Cup last September, he might have been playing an opponent ranked over 100 places higher, but at least he had a hugely supportive gallery behind him. It may be a different story today in the final round of the Smurfit European Open as thousands will flock out of Dublin to cheer on Darren Clarke as he attempts to win the title for a second time in three years.

But Price gave himself a handy advantage with a brilliant performance in the third round. A 67 left the 36-year-old Welshman at 14 under par and three ahead of a group of which Clarke was a part. The others to reach 11 under were Scotland's Alastair Forsyth, Argentina's Angel Cabrera, after a run of seven birdies in his last 11 holes, Jarmo Sandelin of Sweden and the Zimbabwean Mark McNulty, who has taken to wearing sweaters last in vogue on daytime television in the late 1980s.

Price was playing alongside Clarke yesterday in the final pairing and a mark of how well he played was that Clarke did not drop a shot. Unfortunately for the Irishman he could not get the birdie putts to fall and his 70 was achieved by picking up shots at just two of the par-fives. "Phillip played really well and could have gone even lower," Clarke said.

Price began tied with Clarke but birdied three of the first four holes to move ahead. He was out in 32 before holing a 15-footer at the short 12th. He picked up another shot at the 15th and then made a 40-footer with a considerable left-to-right break for a four at the par-five 16th.

The one moment that spoilt his serene afternoon came at the next, where his second shot from the right rough hooked sharply into deep rough on the edge of a hazard. He was able to hack out and limited the damage to a bogey five. "That was a relief because I could have taken a few," said the Welshman.

Price has won just twice on the European Tour, both times in Portugal, but his 2001 victory allied with a consistent run of form realised his ambition of making the Ryder Cup team. By the time the postponed match was played last year he had endured a run of poor form and he has only slowly come out of it this year.

"I have been waiting for things to click and it has certainly clicked the last two days," Price said. There was a simple lesson he learned from The Belfry. "You can still play when you are nervous," he said. "I will probably feel something similar tomorrow and I hope to deal with it the same way I did there."

It is unlikely that Colin Montgomerie, who has never won this title, will fulfil his wish of winning his first tournament as a 40-year-old. Has life begun for the Scot? Certainly his golf has not got any less erratic but after going through a head-clutching run of four bogeys in five holes, Monty then holed in one at the 12th. His seven-iron from 187 yards bounced twice directly in line with the hole and then ran swiftly into the cup. Cue smiles all round. It was the eighth ace of Montgomerie's European Tour career and his 18th in all.

On Thursday, Montgomerie had three twos at the par-threes and was his indulgently amusing self on the subject. "I don't know how many twos I've had in my career but it must be a lot," he said. "Holes in one are lucky, but twos are not. Why have I had a lot of twos? Because you start with a perfect lie and I'm quite a good iron-player."

But after finishing with a 73 to fall back to four under, the Scot was uncompromising about the other 72 shots in his round. "Terrible day, I played awful. My chipping was not good enough. Every time I missed a green I dropped a shot. I only hit one decent shot and that was a decent shot, decent length and accurate. But overall it was very disappointing. Never mind, there's always tomorrow."

Montgomerie won a magnum of champagne and a weekend for two at the K Club hotel. Sweden's Klas Eriksson collected an even better prize when he was awarded a £2,000 Appleby diamond for being the lowest under par for the par-fives over the first two days. An eagle at the 10th helped him improve that score to 10 under by last night. The first player to finish at 14 under for the par-fives at the end of the tournament, as Thomas Bjorn did two years ago, will win a £100,000 "tycoon-cut" diamond.