Clarke receives warm reception at British Open

Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland reacts after missing a birdie putt on the 18th green during the...

Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland reacts after missing a birdie putt on the 18th green during the third round of the British Open on July 16, 2011. (REUTERS/Kieran Doherty)

Ian Hutchinson, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:50 AM ET

The applause that rained down from the bleachers on Darren Clarke as he strolled up to the 18th green on Saturday was much more pleasant than the liquid that came down on him to start the day and it's a good bet that the charismatic Northern Irishman will get the same treatment when he returns Sunday afternoon.

After that warm reception, there was still some unfinished business left for Clarke yesterday, but he failed to sink a birdie putt for a two-shot lead, a common malady for not only Clarke, but many in the field behind him. Whoever wins this British Open is going to do it on the greens.

For now, that eventual champion looks to be Clarke, who compensated for his wonky putting with a magnificent performance off the tee and in the fairway. Despite the nasty elements early in the round and the cruel nature of links golf, Clarke seemed placid and was smiling at many points along the way.

With his one-under performance on Saturday, his five-under score for the tournament is one better than Dustin Johnson, the heartbreak kid from last year's PGA Championship and U.S. Open, two majors he seemed destined to win, but was thwarted by a strange ruling and an epic meltdown, respectively.

Those bad memories will fade into history should Johnson be able to finish it off on Sunday, a realistic expectation with his firepower, but it remains to be seen if he can deal with disappointments of the past the way Rory McIlroy exorcised the demons of his final round Masters meltdown to win the U.S. Open.

This time around hasn't been as fortunate for McIlroy, The pre-tournament favourite suffered through a nasty four-over third round, but youth did have its day in the form of another 22-year-old named Rickie Fowler, who tied Johnson for low round of the day at two-under.

While he's a rising star, Fowler has yet to win on the PGA Tour, let alone a major, but he did seem to live up to his proclaimation yesterday that he is growing more comfortable at Royal St. George's. What better place to get your first win than at the British Open?

Fowler and first round co-leader Thomas Bjorn are three behind Clarke and two back of Johnson and both look to be in the mix come Sunday afternoon. Forget the hype of the television cheerleaders saying Phil Mickelson has a shot at level par. Mickelson has just seven birdies in the entire tournament thus far.

It's just as likely to be a war of attrition where leaders fall back rather than charge forward, particularly the way the weather's been. It's as wise today as it was yesterday to go with a guy who can muck it out in links golf.

It's far from a sure thing, but don't be surprised if the second consecutive Northern Irishman and third in the last four majors is on top of the leaderboard when it counts most on Sunday afternoon.

BAD FIRST IMPRESSION

Tom Watson had it under par when he made the turn in the wind and rain on Saturday, but finished at two over, hardly what he needed on moving day, but not bad for a 61-year-old who may have a top 10 left in him.

Watson may not get into a playoff as he did two years ago, or add another Claret Jug to the five Open championships he's already won, but give him credit for providing a lifetime of special moments on the links, not something he originally expected.

Watching Watson putt from off the green yesterday, I recalled a chat with him three years ago. "Links golf is a different type of golf and some people like it, some people don't," said Watson. "I didn't like it at all when I first played it."

Watson's first shot on a links course was right down the middle, perhaps a little right, but seemingly safe, yet the hunt was on for a ball that had mysteriously vanished.

"There's a little pot bunker. In that pot bunker was my golf ball. It had hit a slope and had run sideways into the pot bunker. I said, 'I don't like this.' That was my first shot (in links golf)," Watson said.

THE WEATHER REPORT

Sunday's forecast calls for windy conditions and showers with a high of 17 C "¦Admittedly, Darren Clarke may have a more comfortable lead if not for a balky putter on Saturday, but the televised questioning of Clarke not taking a practice stroke on the green is the ultimate example of conventional wisdom run amok. McIlroy didn't take a practice stroke at the U.S. Open and wasn't challenged. Such things are a personal thing and any golfer will attest that the actual stroke can be completely different than the practice stroke "¦ If conventional wisdom was absolute, McIlroy would be the top player in the field from Northern Ireland and the leading 22-year-old. Those distinctions belong to Clarke and Rickie Fowler "¦What would be louder? Rory-mania or Rickie-mania, should Fowler come on to win on Sunday? It depends on what side of the ocean you're on.


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