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Open conditions: Rain, with intrigue

SANDWICH, England – There are many things the English do well.

Fine china. Afternoon tea. Tabloid journalism.

But summer weather, that’s a little dodgy, as they say here.

There are plenty of nice days, but then there are those like Saturday at the Open Championship, when the skies opened for a time like a fire hose and the wind blew whitecaps on the English Channel. It eventually improved, helping the late starting leaders who finished in sunshine, but it didn’t suddenly turn Sandwich into San Diego.

It was against that largely gray and grim backdrop that this grand old championship began to take shape, sending us into the final round with Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke trying to become the latest Ulsterman to win a major championship, soul-patched Dustin Johnson trying to win his first and the promise of enough wind today to blow doubt all across Royal St. George’s.

There is a nice element of almost Shakespearean intrigue in place now.

There is Clarke, 42, chasing an unlikely victory, five years after his tear-stained turn in Europe’s Ryder Cup victory outside Dublin following the death of his wife, Heather.

Once the star of his small country’s golf kingdom, Clarke surrendered that spot first to Graeme McDowell and, more recently, to Rory McIlroy. This – potentially – is his moment in his 20th Open.

“Nineteen times I’ve failed to lift the Claret Jug,” Clarke said early Saturday evening. “At the moment, I have the opportunity, but it is only an opportunity.”

Nearest to Clarke is Johnson, a quiet man with the rolling walk of a sheriff and the athleticism of a small forward. He represents the golfer as athlete and may be best known for erasing his scorecard to add a two-stroke penalty to his total that kept him out of a playoff for the PGA Championship last August.

He could become the first American to win a major championship since Phil Mickelson won the 2010 Masters.

There is the seemingly haunted Thomas Bjorn, back at the place that gutted him eight years ago when he threw away a two-stroke lead with three holes remaining. If there is such a thing as karmic justice, Bjorn is the betting favorite at the bookie shops around the UK now though it’s tough to get odds on fate.

Rickie Fowler, in all his colorful 22-year old glory, begins the final round three strokes behind Clarke with the possibility of stamping himself the smiling rival to his buddy Rory McIlroy in what could be the game’s next generation rivalry.

Fowler admits being motivated by McIlroy’s recent U.S. Open victory, saying “he’s a step ahead of me.” Playing much of his round in the mess, Fowler showed Saturday both the game and the demeanor that can set him apart.

There’s even the distant possibility that Mickelson, who’s intentionally put his lousy Open record into a personal amnesia file, could get his hands on the Claret Jug if he could find some Harry Potter-quality wizardry. Not a good chance but a chance.

Getting through Saturday was like something out of “Survivor.” It required rain gear, enough towels to handle a swim team and fortitude. Only three players broke par and it’s no coincidence they’re the first three names on the leader board – Clarke, Johnson and Fowler.

“Rain doesn’t make it really play harder. It’s just more of a pain in the butt,” Johnson said.

Ask Ryan Moore.

“Everything was wet...and I had eight towels in my bag,” Moore said.

No one was spared from the bad weather, but the leaders got the best of it, most of them playing at least nine holes after the rain passed and the wind throttled back.

It didn’t help second-round co-leader Lucas Glover, who looked at times as if he were putting at a moving hole. He didn’t make a birdie, couldn’t find the cup with a GPS and may have kicked away the chance to win the Claret Jug.

A day that began wet and windy ended with a gentle glow as the sun set.

Who knows how Sunday will end.