Scrambling like a waiter trying to balance five glasses of Beaujolais on a silver tray, Frenchman Jean Van De Velde took control of the 128th British Open today with a remarkable display of recovery golf on a course that continued to punish much of the field.
Van De Velde, who began another windy day with a one-shot lead, posted a 1-under-par 70 that left him at even-par 213 in what may be the most difficult major championship in recent memory. He opened a five-shot lead on Australian Craig Parry, who shot a 67 today, the week's best round, and 1997 British Open champion Justin Leonard (71 -- 218), who overcame a five-shot deficit to win his first major at Royal Troon.
"I know there are a lot of better players who have had a commanding lead and lost," said Van De Velde, who is trying to become the first qualifier to win this event since 1962, when rules calling for all competitors to qualify for the field were changed to allow exemptions. "What can happen? I can lose it. But the other thing is, I can win it."
Just when Tiger Woods seemed poised to make a serious move toward his second major championship, a double bogey at the brutally difficult 17th hole left him seven shots off the lead after a creative round of 74 that could have been far worse. That tied him for fourth at 7 over with South African David Frost (71) and Scotsman Andrew Coltart (72).
"Basically, anyone who has a lead like that has got to sleep on it," Woods said. "That's not easy to do. When I won the Masters in '97, it wasn't exactly an easy night's sleep, and I had a nine-shot lead. Anything can happen. He knows this golf course is very penal, and he has to come out and play a solid round of golf again. I'll have to post a number early and see what happens."
Greg Norman, only three shots off the lead before he set out this afternoon with Woods in front of six-deep galleries, shot a 75. He is eight strokes back, with Argentina's Angel Cabrera, who ballooned to 77 after starting just a shot behind Van De Velde, his playing partner today.
Norman insisted he still has a chance to win the tournament. After all, isn't he the man who squandered a six-shot lead at the 1996 Masters by shooting a 78 in the final round, losing to England's Nick Faldo in arguably one of the greatest folds in major championship history?
"I don't know who's sitting where, but anyone 8, 7 or 6 over has a definite shot," Norman said. "You've got to make the putts and get some breaks, that's all there is to this game, especially in links golf. You make, say, five birdies and only one bogey, and the tournament's mine -- it's as simple as that."
The biggest challenge to the 33-year-old Van De Velde -- a PGA European Tour player since 1988 who probably will be on the Ryder Cup team in September -- seems likely to come from Leonard. On three occasions, Leonard has overcome a five-stroke deficit to win a tournament. In the British Open two years ago, he shot a 65 in the final round at Troon to overtake Sweden's Jesper Parnevik, who tumbled off the board today with a 78 that left him at 10-over 223.
"To have a chance to win this tournament going into Sunday was my primary goal at the beginning of the week," said Leonard, a lifelong admirer of fellow Texan Ben Hogan, who won at Carnoustie in 1953. "I've accomplished that and I hope I can accomplish something else tomorrow. [As for Hogan], I don't want to put that on myself just yet. I've got enough on my shoulders as it is without putting Mr. Hogan on there, too."
Van De Velde began playing golf at age 6 and could become the first Frenchman since Arnaud Massy in 1907 to win the coveted claret jug. He knows the pressure will be immense Sunday, when he will be paired with Parry in the final group while Leonard plays just in front and Woods is two groups ahead. Yet tonight, he needed hardly any champagne to feel a bit tipsy over his position.
"How many times is it going to happen in the lifetime of a golfer?" he said. "You're here, and how many times are you going to lead the Open by five? The only thing I have to prove is to myself. I'm just trying to be there for myself, enjoy it, and that's it. Maybe I'm going to blow it, but let me tell you, I will enjoy it. I'm going to force myself to enjoy it."
Today, he was filled with a joie de vivre after many spectacular shots on an afternoon when he could hardly find the fairway or reach the green in the proper number of shots. He hit 6 of 15 fairways and found only seven greens in regulation, but he needed only 23 putts and leads the field with 74 putts for the week.
Van De Velde escaped some of the course's more harrowing places, including a number of steep bunkers and the waist-high rough made even more treacherous by the usual 25 mph wind that blew during most of his round.
The man who represents Disneyland Paris found himself in a magical kingdom of his own on the back nine, making incredible par saves on the 10th and 11th holes. After hitting into a deep fairway bunker at the 466-yard 10th, he was forced to blast out to the fairway. He hit his third shot from 95 yards and made the 15-foot putt.
At the 383-yard 11th, he said, "I drove it in the jungle" -- deep rough down the left side. But he caught a break when a generous rules official allowed him a free drop because his line of sight was hindered by a television tower ("What am I supposed to do, kill the cameraman?" he said). He then hacked his ball out into the fairway, had 75 yards to the green and pitched to six feet, making that par putt, too.
At the 515-yard 14th, he merely rolled in a 70-footer for birdie after finding a fairway bunker. He saved par at the 15th with a bunker shot to three feet, and made par at the 17th out of the sand by blasting to a foot, then truly saved the best for last.
He hit his drive down the middle at the downwind 487-yard finishing hole and hit an 8-iron that rolled 45 feet past the pin. He then produced a clap of thunder from the thousands in the bleachers when he rolled the putt dead into the heart of the cup for one last birdie and that lovely five-shot lead.
"Was I surprised?" he asked. "I'm surprised to be five ahead, but not at myself. If you tee off on the first tee, you deserve to be here, that's the first thing. If you believe you can make it through, then you know it might happen. If you don't believe it, it will never happen."
THE VAN DE VELDE FILE
Age: 33 (born May 29, 1966, in Mont de Marsan, France).
Family: Wife, Brigitte; two daughters.
Sponsor: Disneyland Paris.
Career Notes: Turned pro in 1987, has been on PGA European Tour since 1988. . . . Has one career victory -- 1993 Roma Masters, which he won in a playoff just after recovering from ankle injury suffered while skiing. . . . Finished 26th on European tour money list in 1998.
1999 Notes: Had to play qualifying tournament to get into British Open field. . . . Best finish is fifth in Qatar Masters. . . . Missed cut two weeks ago in Irish Open. . . . Entered British Open ranked 100th on European tour in driving accuracy (64.7 percent), tied for 87th in greens in regulation (67.7 percent).
Key to success in the British Open: Putting. He needed only 23 putts in yesterday's third round and is tied for fewest putts in the tournament with 74.
Did you know: Van De Velde is first Frenchman to lead British Open since Jean Garaialde in 1964; Garaialde finished 13th. Arnaud Massy is only Frenchman to win the event, doing so in 1907.
Sources: European tour, Associated Press.
If Jean Van De Velde were to win the British Open today, he would be the first Frenchman to win the event since 1907. Other improbable major championship winners:
Won in 1991 as the ninth and final alternate to get into the field, and didn't have benefit of even one practice round on course.
Fresh off a 14-year stint in the Army, the 1969 Open was first and only victory as a pro.
Augusta native chips in from 140 feet on the second playoff hole to defeat Greg Norman in 1987.
In Carnoustie, Scotland
TV: WJLA-7, WMAR-2, 9 a.m.
Leaders tee off at 9:40 a.m.
CAPTION: Jean Van De Velde is excited about his unfolding round after sinking birdie putt of about 70 feet on No. 14.
CAPTION: Jean Van De Velde has plenty to be pumped about: He birdied No. 18 from about 45 feet, one of only 23 putts he took in his round.
CAPTION: Tiger Woods, here pitching out of sand, was tripped up in third round by No. 17, recording double bogey to card 74.
CAPTION: Is Greg Norman just about buried after a 75? (He is eight strokes back at 8-over 221.) "Anyone 8, 7 or 6 over has a definite shot," was Norman's take.