CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — The horrendous weather predicted for Saturday at Carnoustie held off until the very end, and the players only had to deal with low temperatures and a mild, one-club breeze at the 136th British Open.
"Scoring weather," said Ernie Els, who rebounded from a triple-bogey 8 on the 6th hole with four back-nine birdies. He shot 68 and is three under for the tournament.
Several players went low Saturday: Steve Stricker tied the course record with a 64, Chris DiMarco fired a 66, and Pelle Edberg and Justin Rose posted 67s. But they were all chasing the man in orange, Sergio Garcia, who has led the entire week and refused to back up, shooting a nearly mistake-free 68 for a three-stroke lead.
"It is in his hands," Padraig Harrington said after also shooting 68 to get to three under overall, six back. "It is very much in his hands."
"It's right there for the taking," said Garcia, who has won six times on the PGA tour and six times on the European tour but is still in search of his first major victory.
Stricker will start Sunday three strokes behind, and it could be a two-man race. Seven players are at three-under, including Paul Broadhurst, K.J. Choi, Stewart Cink, DiMarco, Els, Harrington and Paul McGinley.
The hottest player in the game coming into this event, Choi played with Garcia and stayed within two strokes of the leader until making a bogey 6 on the 6th, the same hole that derailed Els (8) and Broadhurst (7). Choi never seemed to recover, making bogeys on the 8th and 18th holes for a 72.
"Today I bogeyed the last hole, but it's not the end of the world," said Choi, whose usually reliable long game deserted him Saturday, especially on 18, where he pushed his tee shot into the Barry Burn. "I think if I just prepare myself I'll have a good round (Sunday)."
Garcia has twice played in the final pairing in a major, both times with Tiger Woods. On those Sundays, Garcia shot himself out of contention on the front nine, but this is the first time he's held the lead going into the final day.
"I guess the good thing about it is even if you don't have the best of starts you're still there," Garcia said of starting with the lead. "But if you're behind and you don't have the best of starts, it feels like you're falling way back, and it feels like then you can't play as comfortably. You have to attack more and try to go for some pins that maybe you shouldn't and things like that.
"I haven't been in this position in a major, so I'm looking forward to it. And hopefully I'll be able to tell you more about it (Sunday) afternoon."
Woods has been erratic, at best, and will tee off well before the 27-year-old Garcia.
"It definitely doesn't hurt," Garcia said when asked about the prospect of playing nowhere near his nemesis on Sunday.
Woods shot a two-under-par 69 Saturday to get to one under for the tournament. On the par-5 6th hole, he plunked Jennifer Wilson, a 60-year-old spectator from Northern Ireland. She bled profusely; Woods made par. He gave his victim a glove for redirecting his shot with her head.
Not to be outdone, Garcia beaned Chris Ratcliffe, a Bloomberg photographer, with a badly pulled approach shot to the par-4 17th hole. It was Garcia's only errant shot of the day. Ratcliffe was standing in an officially designated photo area down the left side of the hole when he was struck behind the left ear. Garcia apologized and handed the shooter a signed glove and ball. While Ratcliffe was given medical attention, Garcia made a tough up and down for par.
"I hit a 4-iron," Garcia said. "Bad 4-iron, by the way, pulled it a little bit. When I got there, probably I was about 25, 30 yards short of it, and I saw that there was a person lying down. I knew right away that I hit him … I shook his hand. He told me he was fine. Of course he was a little shaken up."
After hitting a 2-iron off the tee on the 499-yard, par-4 18th, which was playing shorter with the tees moved up, Garcia hit the latest in a series of great iron shots dead at the flag. He barely missed the birdie putt. Still, it had been a good day.
He made birdie on the opening hole and two more on the par-3 8th and the par-4 11th. He did not make a bogey and showed none of the nerves that have gotten the better of him in the majors. Afterward, he refused to even talk about prior disappointments. At his press conference, he was asked a question that began, "Sergio, I don't want to rekindle bad memories …"
"O.K. don't," Garcia interjected, prompting laughter in the standing-room-only press center. "Next question, please."
The journalist continued to try to get his question out, but Garcia wouldn't have it.
"You just said you don't want to bring bad memories," he said. "Don't ask it. Next question."
"I was just going to ask you," the questioner continued, "will you do something different this time?"
"I'm not going to do anything different," Garcia said. "I'm going to go out there and try to play my own game, just like I've been doing every single day, and just believe in myself as much as possible. That's the only thing I can do.
"The only thing I can control is myself, and that's about it. So I think if I am in control, the way I'm hitting the ball, it's right there for the taking. Hopefully it will be good enough."
Most players conceded that Garcia would either need to back up or shoot level par to be caught Sunday. Els was hoping for another final round like the one he played at the Scottish Open last weekend, when he fired a 65 to finish just one shot out of a playoff.
Stricker, who was disappointed to miss the big doings in his home state of Wisconsin this week, the U.S. Bank Championship of Milwaukee, last played in the final group of a major with Vijay Singh at the 1998 PGA Championship at Sahalee. Stricker hung tough that time, shooting 70 to lose by two. Since then he's made a reputation as a player who plays better on tougher courses. He tied for 13th at the U.S. Open at Oakmont earlier this summer, finished second at the AT&T National at Congressional two weeks ago, and made seven birdies and no bogeys on Saturday. He led the field with just 23 putts.
"It was just one of those rounds where everything kind of went right," Stricker said.
Garcia said he wasn't surprised at the identity of his closest pursuer.
"I think he's been playing great in the majors lately," Garcia said. "He's been having some good rounds and some good tournaments. He hasn't won, I think, but he's been up there. He's been kind of like me."
When Stewart McDougall of the R&A brought the questions to a close, Garcia went off to do a little bit of stretching to "calm myself down a little bit." He was looking forward to some of his mom's cooking, and a bit of TV with his brother and sister and parents. He would sleep great, he said.