Sweet Sherri fortifies her love of links

Twice champion is back in front as the leading lights prepare for thrilling final round

The hare was caught, passed and all but skinned here yesterday. Unfortunately for the rest of the field, just as Juli Inkster did a reverse rabbit to join them, the bell rang for Sherri Steinhauer to bound three shots clear. And so they will all have to burst out of the traps again today.

The 43-year-old American's pursuers appreciate it could be a futile chase, though. She may have won only one tournament in the last seven years, but the one before that happened to be the Women's British Open and the one before that happened to be, er, the Women's British Open. Oh yes, and the first one of those two victories ­ way back in 1998 ­ was at some place called Royal Lytham & St Annes.

In those unenlightened days, of course, the Wisconsian's back-to-back spectacular did not mean an awful lot in world terms as this tournament was not rated highly enough by her country to be classified as one of the big four.

"When I tell people I've won two British Opens they just assume it was a major and I don't tell them any different," she laughed.

Anything more like yesterday's 66, which could easily have been a 64 if two putts under eight foot had not stayed above ground, and she will have to stay silent no longer. Not that she looks to be any good at keeping quiet. Afterwards, she was quick to enthral all and sundry with the usual American patter about her love of links golf, the imagination it requires and the oh-so knowledgeable crowd (who again exceeded record levels yesterday).

A 50-footer on the 15th got the biggest chorus of joy, although the way she spoke later it was unclear whether the extra daylight that eagle gave her was as welcome as it first seemed.

"You know, I came from behind to win here last time and, I'm not going to lie, front-running isn't that easy," she said. "I'm just going to have to keep talking to myself and not look at the scoreboard. There are some awfully big names in behind."

She probably had in mind Lorena Ochoa, the find of the season who swelled her burgeoning reputation still further with a week's-best 65 to lie in a tie for second with Inkster (the 46-year-old whose 74 included two double-bogeys), England's Karen Stupples and Sweden's Sophie Gustafson.

The 24-year-old has become a huge star in her native Mexico and her two LPGA victories this season have taken her to second place in the money list. Her President phoned her with his congratulations after one success and may have to get on the blower again tonight now she has shrugged off the baggage of an indifferent opening two days to hurtle up the leaderboard.

But nobody summed up the difference a round can make as gleefully as Cristie Kerr. With eight holes remaining of her second round, the 28-year-old from Miami was five over par and staring at a weekend off, although her mind was occupied with something much more worrying.

"Until the final eight holes, I couldn't feel my fingers or even my hands, was light-headed and could not focus," said last year's Solheim Cup heroine. "I had an adverse reaction to my anti-inflammatory pills. It probably cost me six shots."

If Kerr's estimate is right, then she would be two clear and not four behind on three-under. She is overdue a major victory and as one of golf's poster girls this blonde would no doubt be cheered in with passion. But not as passionately as Stupples would be, naturally.

The Deal diva's showing here ­ after a tidy 70 ­ must be welcomed for far wider reasons than the merely personal. Single-handledly (although she might be advised to affix both hands to the grip), the 33-year-old could just rescue the British golfing summer this afternoon. What she would give for a beginning like that at Sunningdale two years ago when an eagle and albatross on the first and the second paved the way for her first major? "How about down the two par-fives, the sixth and the seventh," joked Stupples. "That would lead to a bit of a celebration, wouldn't it?" Indeed, knocking back Sherri would never be more palatable.

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