Todd Hamilton's primary goal Sunday will be to stay as calm and relaxed as possible before his mid-afternoon tee time in the last group of the final round of the 133rd British Open at Royal Troon. That may change when he shakes hands with his playing partner, three-time major champion Ernie Els, or looks down the fairway and sees Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen, winners of this year's first two majors, heading toward the first green.
"It's a hell of a leader board," said Els, who will start the final round alone in second place, a shot behind the virtually unknown Hamilton, an Illinois native who spent 10 years on the Asian Tour before finally earning his PGA Tour card in 2003. Though partnered with Els on Saturday, Hamilton, 38, kept his pulse rate and his score down, posting the lowest mark of the round, a 4-under 67 that left him at 8-under 205.
On a day of changing weather -- rain, sun, wind, chill -- Els had three birdies in his final six holes and ended with a 68 -- 206. For the third time this year, he's in perfect position to win his fourth major and second British Open title. He was second by a shot to Mickelson at the Masters and was two shots behind U.S. Open champion Goosen after 54 holes before fading into a tie for ninth at Shinnecock Hills last month.
"To be honest with you, a lead right now doesn't mean much, especially if it's a one-shot lead," Els said. "I think that anybody within four has really got a legitimate shot at winning, depending on the weather. We've got 18 holes to play, and there's so much that can happen out there."
Mickelson and Goosen, who waged such a riveting U.S. Open duel before Mickelson three-putted the 17th hole on the final day, will go at each other again in the next-to-last group. Both posted 68s Saturday and were tied for third place with Frenchman Thomas Levet, who made a sloppy double bogey at the 490-yard 11th when he missed a two-foot putt. He came in at 71 -- 207, also only two shots off Hamilton's pace.
And Tiger Woods, who began the day six shots off the lead, whittled his deficit to four shots after also posting a 68, good for a tie for seventh with Scott Verplank at 209. Woods birdied his first two holes and four of his first seven before cooling off with 10 pars and a bogey.
Still, he insisted, "I've got a fighting chance on Sunday" to end his current run of eight straight majors without a victory. "I knew I needed to shoot a good round to give myself a chance. I was able to do that. Don't forget, anyone at the top of the board is playing well. You'll have to go out there and win the championship."
In 1997, Justin Leonard did just that, coming from five behind to win the last British Open at Royal Troon with a final-round 65. Also in that five-shot range this weekend are five of the world's top 10 ranked players, as well as Scotland's Colin Montgomerie, the home-country favorite who's playing mostly inspired golf this week. But he missed a three-foot putt at the 18th on Friday and botched a four-footer at the same hole Saturday for 72 -- 210.
"Anyone who says this is fun is joking and they're having a laugh," Montgomerie said. "This is not fun and this is not enjoyment. This is a job and a horrible one, but it might be all enjoyable when one looks back on Sunday evening around about 7 p.m."
Yet Mickelson looks as if he's still having a jolly old time. He's now gone 37 straight holes without a bogey, the last coming at the 17th on Thursday, and he's chipping and putting almost flawlessly to save pars and make birdies.
"He's changed his game, we can all see that," Els said. "He's tightened up his swing. He's practicing differently, he's playing differently. If he plays this way for the rest of his career, he can probably compete in every major championship in golf."
Mickelson has never contended in this major, with no top-10 finishes in 11 appearances. But he came to Troon a week early to practice with his teacher, Rick Smith, and short-game instructor Dave Pelz, and to devise a strategy for attacking the course. He did the same at Augusta National and Shinnecock and said he regrets not preparing this way in the past. Unlike Montgomerie -- who, by the way, would earn about $180,000 for four days' work at this "horrible" job if he maintains his current position in ninth place -- Mickelson clearly is enjoying the week.
"Yeah, it is fun," he said. "Normally I'm watching on TV. There's a number of guys who have a great shot at the championship, and I think it's going to make for some very interesting and exciting television."
Mickelson got off to the fast start he wanted with birdies on the first two holes, and also had several interesting and exciting shots Saturday.
At the 483-yard 15th hole, his 3-wood off the tee hooked into the crowd and hit a spectator in the leg, ricocheting away from the out-of-bounds markers and back into play. Asked if he thanked the uninjured bloke, Mickelson said, "Oh yeah." Then he hit his second shot pin-high in the left rough, chipped to two feet and walked off with a precious par.
"It should have gone out," he said. "It clearly was a tremendous break, there's no other way around it. But every now and then you need something like that to give you a little kick-start to keep you up in there. That certainly kept my round going."
Hamilton also has had his share of adventures this week and throughout his career, including years traveling to places such as Bangkok, Calcutta and Taipei, Taiwan, to support his family now living in the Dallas suburbs. Just when it seemed as if he was going to fold down the stretch at this year's Honda Classic, he birdied the last two holes, including a pressure-filled four-footer at the 72nd hole, to avoid a playoff and beat Davis Love III by a shot.
He had a bogey-free round Saturday, and later admitted, "I actually don't know what to feel. I've played so bad for so long [since winning the Honda Classic in March], it's very strange to be sitting here, commenting on my golf. Usually when I'm commenting, it's to my wife and kids, and it's usually in an angry tone.
"This week, it's a different style of golf. I enjoy playing what I call ugly golf . . . and I'm usually pretty good at ugly golf, unfortunately. . . . I'm sure there's no one in this room that expected me, at least before the start of the tournament, to win. Probably not too many expect it to happen tomorrow."