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British Open destined for dramatic finish

| Sunday, July 18, 2004

TROON, Scotland -- More fickle than the weather at the British Open was the leaderboard it left behind.

At the top was the ultimate journeyman, Todd Hamilton, who breezed through Royal Troon in every condition imaginable Saturday for a 4-under 67 and a one-shot lead. Chasing him was a collection of golf's biggest stars, including Ernie Els, Masters champion Phil Mickelson, U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen and Tiger Woods.

"A lead doesn't mean a whole lot right now," Els said. "There's 18 holes to play, and anything can happen."

Just about everything did on a wild day of weather and momentum changes, from Mickelson coming within inches of going out of bounds to Colin Montgomerie falling backward out of a bunker to keep his slim hopes alive.

Hamilton, who toiled for a dozen years in faraway lands to become a PGA Tour rookie at age 38, played as if he belonged with a bogey-free round and incredible poise to finish at 8-under 205.

When the umbrellas replaced sunglasses for the final time, the British Open looked eerily familiar: Last year, at Royal St. George's, all the best players were poised to hold the claret jug and it went to an unknown rookie named Ben Curtis.

"I don't see why it can't happen again," Hamilton said.

The only difference is that no one paid any attention to Curtis until he was holding the silver jug, courtesy of a chain-reaction of collapses behind him.

Hamilton will be under the spotlight from the start, holding a one-shot lead over Els. The Big Easy birdied three of the last six holes for a 68 and is playing in the final group at a major for the second straight time.

Ten players were within five shots of the lead, half of them major champions.

"There is pressure on everybody," said Woods, whose 68 left him four shots behind. "Everybody has to play well. You can't go out there and play poorly and win this championship."

The man to beat might be Mickelson.

No longer bedeviled by links golf, Lefty has gone 37 consecutive holes without a bogey and got two big breaks down the stretch for a 68 that put him at 6-under 207. Mickelson will play in the next-to-last group with Goosen, the South African who beat him last month at Shinnecock Hills. Goosen had a 68.

"It's cool how we see a lot of top players, and also see quality players you may not have thought on Thursday would be here," Mickelson said. "It's going to make for some very interesting, fun, exciting television."

Also at 207 was Thomas Levet, who got to 9 under until two gaffes cost him three shots -- a three-putt from 12 feet for double bogey on No. 12, and two shots to get out of a pot bunker on the 17th for a bogey.

Barry Lane of England also had a share of the lead at one point, but the 44-year-old who cost Europe the Ryder Cup in 1993 took double bogey on the 17th and bogeyed the 18th for a 71 to finish at 208.

Woods hasn't been in Sunday contention at a major since the British Open last year, and he gave himself a chance with four birdies on his first seven holes for a 68. Still, the world's No. 1 player has made only one birdie on the back nine all week, and that left him farther back than he would have liked.

"I've got a fighting chance," said Woods, who will play with Scott Verplank (70).

Former Masters champion Mike Weir birdied two of the last three holes for a 71 and was at 210 with Montgomerie (72) and Skip Kendall, the 36-hole leader who failed to make a birdie in his round of 75.

"This is a hell of a leaderboard," Els said. "This is quality players, players that have proven themselves throughout the years. And you've got some new guys that really want to break through. I think it's set for quite a finish."

It all starts with Hamilton, who spent a dozen years in places like Singapore and Pakistan and Kuala Lumpur, trying to keep alive his hopes of playing in the big leagues. He finally got his PGA Tour card in December, and if anyone doubts his mettle, consider what he did in March -- birdies on the last two holes to beat Davis Love III in the Honda Classic.

"I'm not one to shy away," Hamilton said.

He sure didn't in an exacting third round, when sunshine gave way to clouds, strong wind, 15 minutes of cold rain and then only a mild breeze off the Firth of Clyde that ushered in more sunshine -- all this in a three-hour stretch.

Hamilton made simple birdies on the par 5s, holed a 20-foot birdie from the fringe on the Postage Stamp eighth hole and took the lead with a 6-iron that stopped rolling 3 feet from the flag on the par-3 14th. What saved his round were six up-and-downs for par, a glimpse of his grit.

Mickelson needed a little luck.

Flawless the last two rounds, his 3-wood was sailing to the right and he knew he was in trouble. But the ball hit the gallery and settled on a tiny patch of dirt so close to being out of bounds that he was standing on the road.

"It should have gone out of bounds," he said. "It was clearly a tremendous break."

On the final hole, his drive was headed for the grandstand when it hit the metal railing that holds back the gallery, landing in a decent lie in the yellow grass.

Mickelson has never finished in the top 10 at a British Open. Then again, he had never won a major until this year.

"This year has been different," Mickelson said.

For Els, this is a familiar position for him in the majors. He was in the second-to-last group at the Masters and thought he had a green jacket until Mickelson made a birdie putt on the final hole. He was in the final group at Shinnecock, two shots behind Goosen, until he shot 80 in the final round.

Here he is again, one shot behind a guy with neither his skill nor experience.

Hamilton may be the leader, but he's also the underdog.

"On a course like this, the best names are going to come to the top," Goosen said. "And that's what is happening."

Save a warm, fuzzy spot for Montgomerie.

He grew up at Troon and his support has never been louder, in part because he is going through a divorce. He saved par from a pot bunker on the 15th with a shot struck with such force he tumbled out backward. Monty missed a short par putt on the last hole, but was still only five shots behind.

He even looks like he's enjoying himself, but don't be fooled.

"This is not fun," he said. "This is a job, and a horrible one, but it might well be all enjoyable when one looks back on Sunday evening."

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