SANDWICH, England (AP) — Rickie Fowler led an American charge up the leaderboard on a day when the weather roared at Royal St. George’s.
Pounding rains and winds gusting over 30 mph prompted players to don bulky, oven-style mitts between shots, huddle under umbrellas and try to find a way to get around the course without giving up too many shots to par Saturday.
“It was playing stupidly difficult,” said Edoardo Molinari, who shot 76. “Some holes were just a joke.”
But the storms eased up in time for those with late tee times to start putting up respectable numbers.
The 22-year-old Fowler sure took advantage of the meteorological good fortune, leaving playing partner Rory McIlroy behind with a surge into contention, only two strokes behind leader Darren Clarke.
“I had quite a bit of fun out there,” Fowler said. “Obviously, it wasn’t the best of conditions. But you knew it was going to be tough, and you just had to make the best of it.”
Fowler birdied three holes down the stretch for a 2-under 68 that got him closer to Clarke, who missed a couple of short putts early on. Two other Americans, 2009 U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover and Dustin Johnson, were just one shot off the pace.
The U.S. hasn’t won a major championship since Phil Mickelson captured the Masters in 2010, a drought of five in a row that is the country’s longest in the modern Grand Slam era.
In all likelihood, the Americans won’t have to worry about McIlroy, who faded from contention largely because of one errant tee shot. The U.S. Open champion knocked it out of bounds at the par-5 14th, wound up making double-bogey and finished with a 74.
“You’ve done so well for 13 holes to keep yourself in it,” McIlroy said. “You’ve got half of Kent on your left and you hit it right. It was a bit disappointing.”
He cocked his head in disappointment as he walked up to the 18th green, his deficit having doubled from four to eight strokes.
“It was a tough one to take,” McIlroy said.
Glover opened the third round with a bogey but followed with eight straight pars, the sort of solid play that carried him to his U.S. Open victory two years ago. He made only three bogeys over the first two rounds to slide next to Clark on the leaderboard at the midway point, both at 4-under 136.
Johnson kept up the strong play that began with a late hole-in-one on Thursday, briefly claiming a share of the lead at 4 under before a bogey at the 13th knocked him back.
He looked like a guy who might miss the cut when he played the first 12 holes of the tournament at 4 over. But a hole-in-one at the 16th Thursday seemed to turn things around. He shot 68 on Friday and was under par again on moving day.
Johnson has shown he can contend in majors, leading last year at both the U.S. Open (where he played miserably on the final day) and the PGA Championship (a much-debated penalty cost him a spot in a playoff). He’ll have another chance to show he can finish.
First-round leader Thomas Bjorn was right in the mix, as well, still in position to make up for blowing the Open the last time it came to Royal St. George’s in 2003.
The Dane had a two-stroke lead with three holes to play, only to throw it away when he needed three swings to free himself from a pot bunker at No. 16.
On Saturday, Bjorn made the turn one stroke back, tied with Glover and Johnson at 3 under. By then, the conditions were much better than they had been earlier.
Umbrellas snapped. Bo Van Pelt went through eight gloves trying to keep his hands dry. Some golfers turned around their caps when putting so they wouldn’t have to deal with rain dripping off the bill.
The 495-yard 14th, which played into the teeth of the wind, was an absolute beast. The 71 players posted a 65-over total at that hole, averaging nearly a stroke above par. There were only 18 pars, and not one player managed a birdie.
“Whenever you have social rounds and it starts raining a little bit, you say, ‘I’m outta here boys,'” said defending champion Louis Oosthuizen, who wasn’t too upset about a 74. “I couldn’t do that today.”
McIlroy, coming off an eight-stroke win at Congressional that made him the star of this championship, teed off when the rain was really slashing across the seaside course. He paused to put on another vest, one that offered even more protection against the downpour.
Maybe he was just looking for something that would float.
But, as the persnickety weather is prone to do along the English seaside, things turned late in the day. The skies brightened a bit. The rain let up. The wind tapered off.
For the leaders, it was a huge break.
But McIlroy couldn’t take advantage. That tee shot at 14 was likely to leave him with a daunting deficit heading to the final round.
“It’s a big setback,” he said. “I obviously wanted to go out there and get closer to the lead, not further away from it.”
Five-time Open champion Tom Watson played in the worst of the weather and still managed a 72. The 61-year-old showed those youngsters how it’s done.
“The conditions are bothersome, but you just try to do the best you can to keep your grips dry and your wits about you and go about your business to try to make pars out there,” Watson said. “Par is a great score out there, obviously. But it’s a struggle.”
At the start of the third round, only seven shots separated those making the cut.
They’ll be a lot more spread out on Sunday, when the forecast calls for more rain and strong gusts.
AP National Writer Paul Newberry can be reached at http://twitter.com/pnewberry1963