The Quiet American Part II

Hamilton threatens a Curtis repeat while Els waits to usurp Tiger
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The Independent Online

For Ben Curtis, read Todd Hamilton? They are both American and, like Curtis last year, Hamilton is a rookie on the US Tour. But there are few other similarities. Curtis was unknown and untested. Hamilton has won in both Asia and Japan, as well as at the Honda Classic in Florida in March.

For Ben Curtis, read Todd Hamilton? They are both American and like Curtis last year, Hamilton is a rookie on the US Tour. But there are few other similarities. Curtis was unknown and untested. Hamilton has won in both Asia and Japan, as well as at the Honda Classic in Florida in March.

But just as Curtis did at Royal St George's last year, Hamilton will have to beat a line-up of the best players in the world to lift the Claret Jug. On a day of typically changeable British summer weather at the 133rd Open Championship, which induced similar unpredictability on the leaderboard, the trend was blindingly obvious. The big gorillas were stirring.

Since Tiger Woods went off the boil, the majors have been a free-for-all, but this season has thrown up a compelling, and continuing, narrative. Behind Hamilton, who leads after 54 holes at eight under par, is Ernie Els, one adrift, with Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen a further stroke back alongside Thomas Levet.

Even Woods is there, for the first time at a major for a year. He is at four under, one behind the leading British challenger, Barry Lane, who shared the lead before dropping three strokes at the last two holes. Colin Montgomerie, on his home course, was roared on by the Scottish gallery but for the second day running missed a short putt at the last to drop back to three under.

Both Monty, like former Masters champion Mike Weir, is five behind, the same margin adrift as Justin Leonard was at the same stage at Troon in 1997. Lee Westwood jumped up to 12th but is six back.

Americans have won the last five Opens on the Ayrshire links but this year it has been the States against South Africa. Mickelson, breaking his duck in his 47th major, claimed the Masters at Augusta in April with five birdies in the last seven holes to beat Els by one.

In the US Open, Goosen led by one over Els and Mickelson going into the controversial final round at Shinnecock Hills and while Els succumbed to an 80, the other two played heroically as Goosen beat Mickelson by two for a second title. They were in separate groups then but today they will play together, in the pairing immediately in front of Hamilton and Els, who got to know each other yesterday.

Hamilton scored a brilliant 67 to take over the lead from his countryman Skip Kendall. Out in 33, he birdied the short 14th to reach eight under. "I don't see why it can't happen again," he said in reference to becoming Curtis Mark II. "I'll still be calm like I was today."

He has a wry sense of humour. He usually only comments on his golf to his family "in an angry tone". Now he was explaining to the masses that getting the ball up and down as often he did was routine. "Six times, that's the norm for me. I've got a good gameplan here. If you can't beat the bunkers stay well short of them. This week it's a different style of golf but it suits me. You need to play ugly golf and I enjoy that."

Els was still at four under with six to play. His short game needed to be at its best at times and at the 11th he hit the wall by the railway on the right but failed to get up and down for what he described as a "silly bogey".

From then on, though, Els was his usual supreme self. He birdied the 13th, the 14th and the par-five 16th with some crisp iron-play to be home in 33 for a 68. "I've played good golf for three days," said the South African. "I've had my ups and downs but I've got myself in with a chance. A one-stroke lead at this stage doesn't mean very much. Anyone within four strokes has a chance, depending on the weather."

Els travels all over the world so he is familiar with Hamilton from trips to the Far East. "He is a quality player. He's got a good game for this course. He hits the ball low and he putted very well. He's going to take some beating."

But then there are the other names to worry about as well. "Right now in our careers we live and breath for these tournaments," Els said. "Phil has come along in the last couple of years. We can see the change in his game. He is playing the type of golf that will get him into contention. If he keeps playing this way he can compete in every major.

"There is so much pressure in these tournaments that to be in contention takes a lot out of you. I have really shaped my game to play these tournaments well. But you're going to have to play awfully well tomorrow. I have to play my best and hope for the best."

You would think the Sunday of a major would owe him one. "I don't look at it that way," he said. "To be in contention you have to play well. At Augusta, I played well and got beat. At Shinnecock, I played crap and still finished in the top 10. Retief and Phil were amazing. I was out of it by the 10th but I was really pleased for Retief. We all know who everyone wanted to win but Retief has come through so well in the last few years, we are good friends."

Els has two US Open titles and won The Open at Muirfield two years ago. He could be the first to repeat as an Open champion for 11 years. Woods, the 2000 winner, could still pip Els to that particular claim. He birdied the first two holes in going to the turn in 32 but had a bogey at the 12th ­ the three holes after the turn have proved the most difficult. His 68 was his lowest round in the majors this year.

Two points may be relevant. Though he has won eight majors, the last over two years ago now, he has never come from behind in the final round, while his closing scores in the last six majors have not been better than 71.

Mickelson and Goosen were the only players not to drop a shot on Friday. Goosen saw his run finish at 27 holes when he bogeyed the fifth but finished with another 68, the same as Mickelson. The left-hander birdied the first, the second and the seventh but again kept a bogey off his card. It is 37 holes since he had one.

Woods is the only man under 30 in today's final pairings. The 44-year-old Lane ran into trouble at the 17th when, in thick rough, his recovery ran across the green.

The round started and finish in a squall but Levet appeared not to notice as he went to nine under. The Frenchman double bogeyed the 11th and dropped a shot at the 16th, but the Muirfield runner-up could still succeed where Jean Van de Velde so famously failed in 1999 and become the first French winner since Arnaud Massy in 1907.