SOUTHPORT, England – Tiger Woods and Kenny Perry couldn't have picked a better place to be on Saturday. Anywhere but Royal Birkdale. A fearsome wind sweeping off the Irish Sea turned the third round of the British Open into a test of survival, the only goal to limit the damage.
K.J. Choi teed off with one-stroke lead, played the first 10 holes at 5 over and still found himself tied for the top spot with 53-year-old Greg Norman and defending champion Padraig Harrington.
The Shark, trying to become golf's oldest major champion, showed no signs of fading, even rolling in a birdie at No. 8 after a massive drive pushed along by howling gusts that reached close to 40 mph. But anything in the vicinity of par was a good score on this day.
Unheralded Englishman Simon Wakefield shot an even-par 70 that gave him the clubhouse lead at 5-over 215. The way things were going, he might just be playing in the final group on Sunday.
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"It was probably about as tough as you can play out there," said 2003 Open winner Ben Curtis, who was thrilled to get off the course with a 70 that shoved him into contention for a second claret jug.
Wakefield was an unlikely contender. He's never won on the European Tour since getting his card in 2000, and he had missed the cut in 10 of 22 events this year.
But the 34-year-old birdied both par-3s on the back side, and made another at the par-5 17th to match the best round of the day.
"I might not sleep tonight," Wakefield said. "It's a very unfamiliar territory for me."
Woods, a three-time Open winner, is sitting out the rest of the year to recover from knee surgery. If he was watching back in the States, he had to be chuckling at what his fellow players were going through.
Certainly, Perry must be feeling good about his scheduling choice. The American received plenty of criticism for turning down his spot in the Open because it didn't suit his game, but at least he wasn't out there getting knocked around by that British zephyr.
Curtis was two strokes behind Wakefield, but he had to hole out a 9-iron from 165 yards to do it. The American turned away in disgust after hitting the shot at No. 3, but the wind blew it back on line and right into the cup for an eagle 2.
The group at 217 also included England's Ross Fisher (71) and young American Anthony Kim (71), holding up well in his Open debut. Davis Love III and Henrik Stenson also shot 70 to sneak onto the leaderboard.
There was briefly a four-way tie for the lead, with 2003 U.S. Open winner Jim Furyk joining the mix. But Furyk's back nine started double-bogey, bogey, bogey.
At No. 12, Harrington drove onto the mound behind the 12th green, barely reached the green from a steep lie and needed three putts to get down with a double of his own. But the Irishman, who wasn't even sure he would play this week because of a sore wrist, birdied the par-5 15th to rejoin the group at the top.
While the sun finally came out after two gloomy days, the stiff breeze held up shots or sent them flying off line.
David Duval sure felt Birkdale's wrath. The 2001 Open champion quickly fell out of contention with an ugly 10-over 44 on the front side, going from three shots off the lead to 10.
Choi began the day as the only player under par through 36 holes, but a double-bogey on the massive sixth hole put him in the same company as everyone else. When he three-putted from just off the green at No. 8, the South Korean found himself with plenty of company at the top.
Norman, a two-time Open winner who married tennis great Chris Evert three weeks ago, got off to a shaky start with bogeys on three of his first six holes. He yanked his opening tee shot into the tall grass and had to punch out. A 4 1/2-foot putt rolled all the way around the edge of the cup and stayed out for another bogey.
But a 364-yard drive at No. 8 set Norman up for an 8-foot birdie putt that brought a smile back to his face. By the turn, he had caught the 36-hole leader. Or, more accurately, Choi came to him.
It was sure easy to drop strokes in these conditions. Phil Mickelson's cap blew off in the middle of the 15th fairway. A course worker retrieved it for Lefty, who shot a 76 that likely erased whatever faint hopes he had for contending on Sunday.
"We've got our work cut out today," said Graeme McDowell, another of those trying to make up the gap on Choi. "This is going to be a real challenge."
Duval was hoping to show he has regained the form that carried him to the world's No. 1 ranking and the claret jug at Lytham. But, coming off a second-round 68, he returned to the form that sent his career into a seven-year skid that he's still struggling to halt.
The wind carried Duval's second shot of the day into the tall, tangly grass right of the green, forcing him to take a penalty drop for an unplayable lie. He wound up with a triple-bogey, which was just the start of his woes.
Duval bogeyed the next three holes before finally making his first par at No. 5. A double-bogey at the sixth was quickly followed by two more bogeys.
Camilo Villegas found the going much tougher after closing Friday's round with five straight birdies for a 65, the best round of the tournament so far. He was 7-over on the day — with six holes still to play and trying desperately to hang on.
Just like everyone else.