Johnson and Fowler lead American charge at Royal St. George's

Johnson and Fowler lead American charge at Royal St. George’s

Dustin Johnson is in contention despite battling an illness.
Thomas Lovelock/SI

SANDWICH, England — No American has won a major championship since Phil Mickelson at the 2010 Masters.

That was 15 months ago, a stretch that included a U.S. Open on an American classic (Pebble Beach), a PGA in the American Heartland (Wisconsin), and another U.S. Open on the outskirts of the American capital (Washington). What an ironic twist, then, should the drought end Sunday on the most un-American of courses, a bumpy, beastly links on the sandy coast of southeast England.

"We've got a good shot tomorrow," said Dustin Johnson of Myrtle Beach, S.C., after a two-under 68 in the third round of the 140th Open Championship propelled him to four-under for the week, one stroke behind the leader, Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland.

A very good shot.

After a mostly wet, wild and windy day at Royal St. George's finally gave way to gorgeous blue skies and sunshine in the late afternoon, six Americans are within five strokes of the lead in the season's third major, led by Johnson and Rickie Fowler, who is two under after posting a 68 to match the low score of the day. Lucas Glover (73), who had a share of the 36-hole lead, is four back of Clarke, while Davis Love (72), Anthony Kim (70) and Phil Mickelson (71) are five behind at even par for the championship. Four other Americans are in a group at one over par.

Who could have guessed the humps and bumps and swirling winds of Royal St. George's would make the Yanks feel so at home?

"I've always enjoyed playing links golf," said Johnson, who was four over through his first 12 holes on Thursday but who has played his last 42 holes in eight under. "You've got to hit all different kinds of shots. You've got to cut it, you've got to draw it, you've got to hit low, you've got it high, and I enjoy that."

He's not the only one. "I love links golf," echoed Fowler, who made three birdies in his final six holes Saturday. "There are so many ways to play one course, and it's rare that the course plays the same way on a four-day tournament."

If an American is going to prevail, it's unlikely that Clarke will roll over for him. The 42-year-old is a fierce competitor and is displaying the kind of solid ballstriking and bulldog tenacity that fans haven't seen from him since he was a regular in the top 10 in the World Rankings in the early 2000s.

Through 54 holes, Clarke is the only player in the field to have recorded three rounds in the 60s.

"Obviously, if someone had given me 69 before I was going out to play, I would have bitten their hand off for it," Clarke said after his three-birdie round Saturday. "Saying that, we did get very fortunate with the draw. Sometimes to win any tournament the draw can make a big difference, but in the Open Championship it can make a huge difference."

Clarke lives in Portrush, Northern Ireland, where the weather is fickle and often foul, so he is accustomed to playing in harsh conditions. He said Friday that he would welcome the nasty stuff should it roll in Saturday, and he got his wish, though only for five holes or so of his round, which started at 3:05 p.m. The early starters faced the brunt of a wicked squall — complete with sideways rain and wind gusts of up to 40 miles per hour — that battered Sandwich throughout the morning and into the middle of the afternoon.

When Fowler arrived on the first tee just after 12:30 p.m. in white rain gear, oversized black mittens, and a cap pulled low over his brow, he looked ready for a summit hike up K2. Which was fitting because, for the majority of the field, that's exactly what the third round must have felt like. Plenty of other analogies also worked.

"It was like going 18 holes with the heavyweight champion of the world," said Trevor Immelman after a gritty 72.

Ryan Moore, who carried eight towels in his bag and took 76 shots, was asked if there was anything even remotely fun about playing in the tempest.

"No, nothing remotely," Moore said, finally finding some refuge in an R&A trailer. "This is the best part of the day right now."

Edoardo Molinari (76) of Italy said the course was "stupidly difficult," and that some drives, if not hit low enough, could be blown up to 80 yards off line. At the 495-yard, par-4 4th, he hit driver, followed by a 3-wood, and still came up some 40 yards short of the green. At the 10th, a 415-yard par 4, he whacked a driver, then a 2-iron. Short again. "Even if they moved some tees up, I think some holes were just a joke," Molinari said.

Bo Van Pelt (73) said his round triggered flashbacks to the "worst day of my life" — a 36-holer he played at Prairie Dunes in Kansas on a foul, 40-degree day. Sergio Garcia wore a red wool cap and spent much of his round in a semi-fetal position, his hands in mittens and his arms clenched tightly across his chest. And fans trudging back from the farthest, most exposed reaches of the course looked like they were returning from a trawling expedition in the North Sea.

"You just try to do your best to keep your grips dry and your wits about you," said Tom Watson, the grisled five-time Open champion, who naturally did just that. Playing through the worst of it, the 61-year-old Watson went out in 34, including a birdie at the par-5 seventh, and carded a two-over 72. He is nine off the pace.

Much closer to Clarke's lead are Johnson, who is taking antibiotics to combat swollen glands this week, and Fowler. And each has plenty to prove. Johnson, held the 54-lead at the 2010 U.S. Open before shooting an 82 on Sunday. Two months later, at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., he grounded his club in a fairway bunker on the 72nd hole, dashing his hopes of a PGA Championship title. Johnson believes those experiences have only made him stronger and says that he feels no additional pressure because of them.

"Tomorrow, it's just another round of golf," he said.

Fowler is the face (and hair) of the new breed of American golfer. No one doubts his talent, but the 22-year-old has yet to win on Tour.

"I'd love for my first win to be a major," Fowler said, "and I'd love for it to be here."