Phillips rides storm to stay in the hunt

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VAN PHILLIPS, a struggling rookie from Slough, found himself big- game hunting yesterday, in the company of the deadliest tracker in South Africa.

The 22-year-old, who is playing in his first European Tour event, led the Northern Hemisphere's challenge into yesterday's third round of the Lexington PGA Championship alongside Ernie Els, the world's most feared opponent.

And after seven holes, the Englishman was leading Els and the third member of the final group, a local pro, Nic Henning, who had been the overnight leader.

If being ahead of that sort of competition was not enough to test the young man's nerve, the tournament was hit by a fierce, high-veld thunderstorm that caused a break in play for 90 minutes, as a deluge lashed the Wanderers course, which is north of here.

There were still threatening clouds around when play resumed, and Phillips found the clubbing much different on the soaked course, but he was steady enough to finish the ninth three shots ahead of his partners.

However, his foot slipped when he was driving the 10th, and although the ball went only slightly off line down the left, it ended beneath a solitary tree and cost him a shot. Both Els and Hemmings were far more wayward, but found better lies and scraped their pars.

Els then cut loose with two birdies and an eagle to share the championship lead with Trevor Dodds, of Namibia, but stumbled into bogeys at the 15th and 17th to finish two shots adrift, a position he shares with Mark McNulty, Tony Johnstone and Warren Schutte.

Phillips is only a shot further behind, and considers himself as being still in contention: "I've never played with a star like Ernie before and I was very nervous," he said. "But I settled down and I could have done without the stoppage.

"I have struggled since I turned professional and it has cost a lot of money to get down here, but I am determined to make it and this has been a boost I wanted," he said.

A good round today will ensure Phillips a leading part in this historic tournament. Furthering its reputation for having the most elastic horizons in golf, the European Tour has set up shop south of the equator for the first time, and has been rewarded by a healthy and inquisitive throng assembled at the Wanderers course.

What it has not had is a bulk effort at flag-flying by home-bred members of the Tour. And of those who made the trek down here to be part of sporting history in a country that is creating plenty these days, the most impressive blows have been struck by those still in the early stages of piecing together a golfing reputation.

Phillips, a former Walker Cup player, has taken part in six events in South Africa this year, and two top-10 finishes have earned him an encouraging $5,000 (£3,100). He is due to play the rest of the year in the second- string Challenge Tour, but if he wins here, he automatically gets a place on the Tour, and a place in the top 10 will earn him entry into the next big tournament.

The other British successes on a difficult day included Ricky Willison with a 67. He goes into today's final round at a respectable one over par, a position he shares with David Carter (68), who considers himself British despite having been born and brought up in South Africa.

The son of the professional Roy Carter, who is on the European Seniors Tour, Carter has been living in Britain for more than two years, and gained his card by finishing top of the qualifying school. He is the only Tour player to have played in all five tournaments so far this year, dragging himself to Dubai, Manila, Madeira and the Canaries before arriving here. Carter was not too tired, however, to put himself on the fringe of contention yesterday, when he rescued an ordinary round with four birdies in the last six holes.

Mark James, as befits the new chairman of the Tour's tournament committee, also put himself in with a chance of making a splash in the final round with a 69, but Darren Clarke is way behind at eight over.

Clarke might have suspected it was not going to be his week. He was due to be best man at the wedding of his manager, Andrew Chandler, in Cape Town on Tuesday, but delayed flights from the Canaries got him to the church an hour too late. He also feared missing the cut on Friday but just scraped in by a shot, and when he eagled the fifth with a 25ft putt yesterday, he thought recovery was on the way. He three-putted the next from eight feet, and from then his putter did nothing for his Ryder Cup ambitions.