SOUTHPORT, England — Who says the ball doesn't move until you hit it? Marking your position on day three of the British Open became a test of hand-eye coordination. Balls oscillated or were pushed along the greens by gusts of up to 48 miles per hour, flagsticks bent like licorice and sand blew sideways.
Rocco Mediate doubled the first hole and Alex Noren tripled the second, but both were in the top 10 at day's end. Sean O'Hair's last five holes looked like a postal code: 3-5-4-9-7. David Duval shot 83 and "didn't really play too badly," according to his playing partner.
That playing partner was Padraig Harrington, who managed a 72 and was just two off the lead of Greg Norman. Harrington, last year's Open champion from Ireland, knows tough conditions and said after the round, "That was one of the toughest sets of conditions I've experienced."
And yet these are the best conditions, for him. He made no apology for wanting more of the same on Sunday. Harrington is best when the elements are at their worst, and Saturday's scoring average of 75.759 was almost as high as Thursday's (75.976), when the fierce wind was complemented by rain. English summer, they call it around here.
A 1.62-ounce ball is no match for this kind of wind, and players spent much of Saturday wading into the high grass in search of stray ammo, bent over at the waist, heads down and hinders up, as if tracking a rare sand flea. It was left to Jean Van de Velde, naturally, to illustrate the absurdity of the day.
"Everybody out of the way," he shouted with a laugh after hitting his tee shot on the par-3 fourth 50 yards left into a gorse bush. "Ball is coming, hopefully. This could be a great three. Or maybe a two. Or a helluva four." (Alas, it was a five and Van de Velde shot 80, but give the man credit for comic timing.)
An artist from Liverpool sat behind the 18th green during the third round Saturday. He's been given permission by the R&A to paint a picture of the Open, and we can safely predict that the finished work will resemble Edvard Munch's "The Scream."
Only the subject of the painting will have mirrored sunglasses and be surveying his lie on the first hole, which was so bad for Duval that he took an unplayable on the way to a 7, the first indignity of a front-nine 44.
Or he'll be watching as his ball is blown first a foot across the green, then another foot, and finally 15 yards OFF the green, as Anthony Kim's was.
The 10th green is particularly exposed, and when a fierce gust sent Kim's Nike tumbling, a 30-minute ruling was delayed in part because the R&A official couldn't hear. The wind was howling in his earpiece.
This is usually the point at which the powers that be step in and suspend play, as at Hilton Head in 2007, or the 2005 FBR Open, or the Hope in 1999. But the R&A was determined to get this round in, and so Jim Furyk perfected the sideways sand wedge pitch-out. (After briefly leading, he double-bogeyed the 10th and 14th holes and shot 77.) Kim hit a 148-yard 3-iron. Paul Casey hit driver, 2-iron to the sixth hole, which was playing from the forward tees (along with the 11th and 16th).
Like Duval, the wind blew a gaping hole in Casey's ego practically the moment he walked out of the clubhouse. He hit his first shot of the day out of bounds on the way to a double-bogey 6. After a series of pars and even back-to-back birdies on seven and eight, he drove his tee shot on 15 into the past tense, his ball disappearing in either a bush or the rough, he'll never know which. Ah, but at least he got a story out of it.
"The Duke of York is here, and he said he'd hit a ball in there the other day," Casey said with a rueful smile. "I said, 'Did you find it, sir?' And he said, 'No.'"
Davis Love III confessed he "hit some fans and scoreboards because of gusts that we did not expect."
And these were the winners Saturday.
Kim shot a one-over-par 71 (seven over total) and shot up onto the first page of the leaderboard. Love (70, nine over, T15) and Henrik Stenson (70, eight over, T9) were also within reach of Norman. Sergio Garcia was not out of it (74, nine over total).
Not a single player broke par in the third round. It was a day in which the early starters hoped first to minimize the damage to their own scorecards, and then to watch a whole lot of damage on TV.
Ben Curtis went off at 10:30 a.m. and made eagle 2 on the third hole, his 165-yard 9-iron diving into the cup. As the leaders were starting their rounds, he signed for a par 70 (seven over total), which playing partner Phil Mickelson called "one of the better rounds I've seen."
But it got better. Tied for 19th when he finished, the 2003 Open champion started rising up the leaderboard as the leaders leaked shots, and "Curtis Watch 2008" became the parlor game du jour in the press tent.
He was 11th. No, he was 10th, ninth, tied for sixth. By the end of the day, he was tied for fifth, having made his biggest move up the board while reading the paper and nibbling digestive biscuits, one imagines.
With balls moving around the grounds like air hockey pucks, not everyone was so lucky.
The best feel-good comeback story this side of Norman, Duval went from a tie for fourth place to T64. Justin Rose began the day with an outside chance at just six over for the tournament, but the darling of Birkdale in 1998 made 10 bogeys and a double and signed for an 82.
"The only good thing about today is it didn't rain," Harrington said, but he looked none the worse for wear. He said his injured wrist felt fine, and was a blessing as it limited his pre-tournament practice to nine holes. The forecast is for more wind, and the champ is in his element. As a certain French golfer might say, Everybody out of the way!