Hamilton storms to British lead

With weather playing tricks on players, American shoots second consecutive 67

Els is 1 stroke back

Mickelson 2 behind

Woods trails by 4, says he has `a fighting chance'

July 18, 2004|By Thomas Bonk | Thomas Bonk,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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 yesterday, when the place looked more like Looney Troon than Royal Troon.

If it wasn't rainy 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 two shots back, and Woods four back after a 68 and close enough to get everybody's attention.

In the previous 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 still got a fighting chance," Woods said.

Lace up the gloves. It's still anybody's major to win, and with the game's big punchers bunched together at the top, this British Open 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, an American who shot his second straight 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 8-under 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 and 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 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 5-under 208, and Scott Verplank, tied with Woods at 209 after a gritty round of 1-under 70. 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 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."

Levet is still right there with Mickelson and Goosen at 6-under 207, but he was sailing along with the lead at 9-under until he reached the 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 16th, needing two shots to escape a green-side 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 isn't going to change anything, not even his habit of checking out the leader boards 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. He is as unflappable a player you could find, and his steady round of 68 means the U.S. Open champion has an opportunity to make it two in a row in majors.

"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 when you make the turn at Troon.

The wind will say it's tired and decide to stop blowing before you see a bunch of birdies on Troon's back nine. That's been Woods' problem all week, and he knows that's got to change if he is going to cash in his chance today.

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

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

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