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A Bunch of Big Names at Troon

Unheralded Hamilton leads British Open, but Els, Mickelson, Goosen and even Woods are within striking distance going into last round.

July 18, 2004|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

TROON, Scotland — Just when you think there's nothing more the British Open can serve up, that's when you experience all four seasons on the same day, watch Todd Hamilton supplant Skip Kendall as the unlikely leader, witness Thomas Levet suffer through a couple of goofs that would have Thomas Bjorn nodding his head and see Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen and Tiger Woods move into position to win another major.

Maybe today's final round will be a little more predictable than it was Saturday, when the place looked more like Looney Troon than Royal Troon.

If it wasn't raining and cold, it was sunny and warm and then pelting rain once again, while the top players in the world tried to make sense of a punishing course in less than ideal conditions.

The day ended with Els trailing Hamilton by one shot, Mickelson and Goosen only two shots back and Woods four back after a 68 and close enough to get everybody's attention.

In the last British Open at Royal Troon in 1997, Justin Leonard trailed by five shots going into the last day and won, so Woods knows he has a shot.

"I've got a fighting chance," he said.

Lace up the gloves. Yes, it's still anybody's major to win, and with the game's big punchers bunched together right there at the top, the 133rd edition of the Open Championship shapes up as nothing less than a heavyweight title fight.

Everyone has a favorite, and it's easy to see the appeal for all of them.

Hamilton, who shot his second consecutive 67, is the virtual unknown underdog, a guy who went to PGA Tour qualifying school eight times, who has played the Japan Tour since 1992, and who won the Honda Classic in the sixth tournament he played this year.

So what if Hamilton has missed six cuts and had only one finish better than 33rd since the Honda? He's still leading the British Open after 54 holes at eight-under-par 205 and there's no rule that says he has to apologize for that.

"I actually don't know what to feel," Hamilton said. "I've played so bad for so long, it's very strange."

Playing with eerie consistency is Els. He shot a 68, birdied three of the last six holes, he's the only player with three rounds in the 60s, and this is a major he won two years ago, so it would be wise to keep an eye trained on him.

"To be honest with you, a lead right now doesn't mean much, and especially if it's a one-shot lead," he said. "I think anybody within four has really got a legitimate chance of winning."

That group would also include Barry Lane, who is alone in sixth place at five-under 208, and Scott Verplank, tied with Woods at 209 after a gritty round of one-under 70. Skip Kendall, the second-round leader, shot a 75 and is at 210.

Then there is Mickelson, who shot 68 and has played 37 holes without a bogey. His streak appeared in peril at the 15th hole when his drive was heading out of bounds, but the ball caromed off a spectator and landed instead near some television cables.

Mickelson, who saved par, was grateful for the intervention.

"When I saw [the ball] up in the air, I thought it was out, there was nothing to stop it other than a gentleman's leg," he said.

"It was clearly a tremendous break."

Then there are bad breaks. Levet is still right there with Mickelson and Goosen at six-under 207, but he was sailing along with the lead at nine under until he reached the deadly par-four 11th, the 490-yard bogey waiting to happen, the one with the railroad tracks running alongside.

There was no light at the end of the tunnel there for Levet. He missed the green, chipped on and three-putted from 12 feet for a double bogey. That cost him his lead and Levet lost another shot when he bogeyed the par-five 16th, needing two shots to escape a greenside bunker.

The scene was reminiscent of Bjorn's misfortune last year at Royal St. George's when he needed three shots to get out of a bunker on the 70th hole on the last day.

But Levet, who lost to Els in a playoff in 2002, said he's still all right and he isn't going to change anything, not even his habit of checking out the leaderboards on the course during his round.

"Let's say on the last day, if you're not used to looking at them, and suddenly you look at one, you could say, 'Oh, my God, I'm in the lead' and panic, you explode."

This is hardly Goosen's problem. There is no more unflappable player, and his steady round of 68 means the U.S. Open champion has an opportunity to make it two majors in a row with a low round today.

"It doesn't matter how many majors you have won, it's never easy with the last day," he said. "You have to grind it out."

Nowhere else on the golf course is this more true than the turn at Troon.

Woods has played 27 holes on the back nine this week and made one birdie, a two-putt Thursday on the par-five 16th.

He said there isn't any big change of philosophy he can make on the back.

"What can you change? You're hitting mid-irons and long irons and it's not like you leave the ball three feet from the hole and have the ball stop right away," he said.

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