No, wait a minute, this was the storm before the calm. The day might have begun with driving rain and a spinnaker wind that sent spectators scurrying for cover, but it ended with soft Kent sunshine, flags fluttering in the breeze and a tournament poised for yet another dramatic finish.
The weather can sometimes turn the Championship on its head, but yesterday’s conditions put the 2011 version firmly on its feet. The 71 third-round starters had been covered by just seven shots, but by close of play last night that spread had been stretched to 20. The third round of a major is often called moving day; the weather at Sandwich meant that an uncommon number moved backwards.
Not Darren Clarke, though. The cannon from Dungannon has made a bigger noise in the past, but he has rarely played with such patience and control. Clarke made a couple of bogeys, more than made them up with three birdies, signed for a 69 and finished his day exactly where he had started it: at the top of the Championship leaderboard. Along the way he had lost Lucas Glover, the overnight joint-leader who slipped back to a tie for fifth with a round of 73.
Clarke’s partner in today’s last pairing will be Dustin Johnson, who advanced into second place with a 68, equalling the best score of the day. The superstitious might note that no Open champion has won his title after recording a hole in one, as Johnson did on Thursday, but the pragmatic punters will keep their cash away from the 27-year-old from South Carolina on the basis of what he did at Pebble Beach last year, squandering a three-shot lead on the final day of the US Open.
Will Johnson have learned from that experience? Rory McIlroy turned his nightmare at the Masters to joy at the US Open a couple of months later, but Johnson is a rather different creature. He may be a few years older than McIlroy, but he trails the Hollywood moptop by some distance as far as charisma is concerned. If that translates to strength of character then Johnson’s odds are longer still.
Yet Johnson has already struck a blow for a beleaguered golfing nation. On the international stage, American golf has been earning levels of respect on a par with those enjoyed by Scottish football, but this tournament has witnessed a fightback on a rather splendid scale. As dusk drew over Kent last night, 10 of the top-16 slots in The Open had been taken by US players.
And the hip young gunslingers of Europe who had survived the cut, and were meant to be golf’s new wave, dropped out of contention.
In their absence, the old world challenge was led by some distinctly old blokes. Clarke is 42. Thomas Bjorn, tied for third, is 40, and fifth-placed Miguel Angel Jimenez celebrated his 47th birthday in January. So much for the world of golf being tilted on its axis. The good name of Europe is now in the hands of a trio who could soon be auditioning for a remake of Last of the Summer Wine.
The Americans have taken a consistent line this week when asked about their demise on the international stage. We’re not playing for America, we’re playing for ourselves they have said. A cynic might say that they have suffered for that approach in the Ryder Cup over the past couple of decades, but rampant individualism isn’t such a bad thing when you’re heading down the stretch in a Major.
Phil Mickelson has been there a few times, and his is easily the most intriguing, if not to say surprising, name on the leaderboard. Mickelson mapped his way around Royal St George’s in the worst of the weather and at a time when scores were still heading towards the stratosphere. In the circumstances, his 71 was comfortably one of the rounds of the day, bettered only by the 72 shot a little earlier by the perennially magnificent Tom Watson.
And yet only a heart of stone could not crave a Clarke victory. Quite apart from the loss of his wife Heather to cancer in 2006, the Northern Irishman has not had an easy time of it on other fronts. Once a fixture in the top 20, his world ranking now is a lowly 111th. He has retained an undimmed ability to shoot the odd low round, but his gift for stringing four of them together seemed to be a thing of the past. This morning his tally in Sandwich is three – and counting.
In his favour, Clarke has never lacked belief. “Did I ever doubt that I would get myself back in this position?” he mused. “No. Did I know it was going to happen? No. Did I hope it was going to happen? Yes. But did I ever doubt it? No.”
As he admitted last night, though, his putting will have to step up a gear if he is to win with any comfort. Time and again he saw short putts shave the hole, lip out or pull up inches short. Clarke is not the sort of fellow to suffer horrors about such things, and neither should he have to. Yesterday seemed to be one of those rounds where the only problem was a lack of luck. That it was still his third sub-70 round of the tournament should be a cause for hope, not despair.
He certainly seemed pretty relaxed about things. Asked about his plans for the evening, it was clear that things other than nerves would be tugging at his stomach. “I’ll probably stuff my face and go to bed about 10,” he explained. “And try not to drink too much.”
Clarke recalled that he had once been given a tip by Ken Brown, now a BBC commentator. “Don’t let your golf game determine your attitude,” he said. “Let your attitude determine your golf game.”
This morning, a player from Northern Ireland holds the final-day lead for the third major in succession. This afternoon we will find out about Clarke’s attitude. And, for that matter, his determination.