By Andy Farrell, Special to PGA.com
SANDWICH, England -- Two crafty veteran Europeans and two exciting young Americans make for a fascinating last couple of pairings for the final round of the 140th Open Championship.
How did the Ryder Cup break out?
Darren Clarke, of Northern Ireland, leads on 5 under by one from Dustin Johnson. Three behind the leader, Denmark's Thomas Bjorn and Rickie Fowler share third place at two under.
Of course, it is every man for himself in pursuit of the oldest and grandest championship in golf. It should be no other way when the Claret Jug is at stake. There is only ever one champion golfer of the year.
But two Ryder Cup related issues may be relevant. In 2006, Clarke's wife Heather lost her battle with breast cancer. Weeks later Clarke teed up in a home Ryder Cup at the K Club under the most intense personal scrutiny. He played brilliantly despite the pressure and admitted that the experience could only stand him in good stead the next time he might be in contention for a major championship.
This week he said: "Nothing could be more difficult than that particular week."
Now is that next chance to win a major championship. He is 42, once more has a settled family life back in his homeland with a new fiancée and has been honing his game at the mighty links of Royal Portrush.
Although getting a lucky break with the wind and rain dying after teeing off, Clarke hit the ball terrifically. He made the only birdie of the day at the first and almost made the only one at the last, but his putt just rimmed the cup. It was one of those days on the greens although he admitted some of his efforts were poor. Still, his attitude remains upbeat and he received tremendous support from the galleries. His reception at the final hole ranked with other ovations he has received. Only one on a Sunday afternoon at the Open could top it.
Twice before he has had chances, at Troon in 1997 and Lytham in 2001, but now on his 20th attempt another presents itself.
"I am very excited about that," said the 42-year-old hoping to become a second successive Northern Irish winner of a major.
"The Open is the biggest and the best tournament in the world. I have failed to lift the Claret Jug 19 times but tomorrow I have an opportunity.
"But at the moment it is only an opportunity because the weather is going to be very windy again and there's still a long way to go. But I'm very pleased to be leading going into the last round."
Fowler is only 22 and has never won at the professional level but he does have his own Ryder Cup moment to draw upon. At Celtic Manor last October, Fowler rallied from four down and three down with three to play to gain a halve against Edoardo Molinari. It was a veteran effort from the rookie and forced Graeme McDowell to beat Hunter Mahan in the final singles in order for Europe to win the overall match.
"That's something I'll probably draw on for the rest of my life," Fowler said. "How calm I felt there will definitely help me tomorrow."
Fowler fell in love with links golf at the Walker Cup at Royal County Down in 2007. He played well for three rounds at St. Andrews last year and his 68 today was superb. Johnson matched the score but Fowler played more of his round in the really filthy weather that swept through southern England.
The youngster took his lead from the great Tom Watson, who produced a heroic 72 when the rest of the early starters were moaning their heads off.
"A great example of someone who has played pretty well over here for a long time is Tom Watson," Fowler said. "Me and my caddie watched a bit of the coverage this morning and saw how he looked like he was having fun, smiling, embracing the conditions.
"That's the best way to deal with hard conditions and I love playing links golf anyway. You have to play different shots depending on the weather conditions and figure out your own way around the course."
Johnson, who is slowly feeling better after being afflicted with a virus when he holed in one on Thursday, has also come to enjoy links golf, despite his reputation as a bomber. His problem last year was bombing out in the final rounds of the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship, albeit the former was simple bad play while the later was a case of an inadvertent, and controversial, penalty on the final hole for grounding his club in a bunker.
Third time lucky for the 27-year-old in the final pairing of a major?
"I've been in this situation now a few times and then times you are there, the more comfortable you get," he said. "I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing and just take what the course gives me."
But when it comes to letting a major slip away, Bjorn knows all about it from the Open eight years ago here. Three shots to get out of a bunker on the 16th and his hopes disappeared and Ben Curtis took the title.
The Dane led on the first day and is still lurking, intent on redemption.
"It is always tough on these Sundays," said the 40-year-old. "A lot of things can happen and you just have to stick with your game. This golf course suits my eye and I'm pleased with what I've done so far this week. But we've got to play tomorrow and see what happens."
They have to play and, don't worry, we will be watching.