Sandwich - Darren Clarke rode a wave of fan support to grab the lead after a storm-hit third round of the British Open on Saturday, setting up the prospect of an emotion-charged climax to the tournament.
The 42-year-old Ulsterman, one of the most popular sportsmen in Britain, carded a 69 over the Royal St George's links in Kent to take the outright lead at five under par.
That was one stroke clear of Dustin Johnson of the United States, who had a 68. Two strokes further back came young American Rickie Fowler, who had a 68 and Denmark's Thomas Bjorn with a 71.
On one under were Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez (72) and Lucas Glover of the United States (73).
US Open champion Rory McIlroy struggled to a 74 and at four over his chances of winning back-to-back Majors appear to have disappeared.
It was a day when the vicissitudes of seaside, links golf in a British summer were in full evidence.
The early starters played in some of the worst weather to hit The Open in years, while hours later the leaders went round, for the most part, in shirt sleeves under patches of blue sky and in splashes of sunshine.
Clarke and Glover started the day as joint leaders at four under par, but the 71 players who made the cut were separated by just seven strokes making it one of the most open of Opens in recent years.
The Irish Ryder Cup hero started with a birdie and with Glover quickly falling behind, he had a short birdie putt at the fourth to go three strokes clear of the field, but missed it.
The 27-year-old Johnson, who went close to winning his first Major at both the US Open and the PGA last year, emerged from the chasing pack and he and Clarke vied for the lead for most of the afternoon.
The big American came in with a fine 68, which left him at four-under for the tournament, one behind Clarke at that stage.
The Irishman parred his way in from the 13th to put himself in pole position to finally win The Open at what is his 20th attempt. He finished tied for runner-up in 1997 and tied for third in 2001.
Fowler's round of the day was all the more impressive in that it was crafted in the teeth of the storm as the two superstars of golf's new generation went head to head for the third straight day.
After holding on for a par 35 on the front nine, the 22-year-old Californian took revenge on the course as soon as the weather started to improve by bagging three birdies in four holes from the 13th.
"It was awesome out there. I hit a lot of good shots. Obviously a couple of poor ones, but we were able to make up for it and stay away from making big numbers out there," Fowler said.
"I'd love for my first win to be a major, and I'd love for it to be here."
McIlroy bemoaned hitting out of bounds with his drive at the par-five 14th having battled hard to stay in contention.
"You've done so well for 13 holes to keep yourself in it, and then to hit you've got half of Kent on your left and you hit it right, it was a bit disappointing. Yeah, it was a tough one to take," he said.
"I'll need a good one tomorrow, and if it doesn't look like I can win, I'll try my best to get a Top 10 or a Top 5."
At the opposite end of the age scale it was another stellar day for 61-year-old Tom Watson.
The American legend, who came within one putt of winning a record-equalling sixth British Open at Turnberry two years ago, took on the elements with a smile on his face and he was rewarded with a superb 72 to leave him at four over.
"The conditions were bothersome, but you just try to do the best you can to keep your grips dry and your wits about you and go about your business to try to make pars out there." he said of his day's work.
Leaderboard after third round:
205 - Darren Clarke (NIR) 68-68-69
206 - Dustin Johnson (USA) 70-68-68
208 - Rickie Fowler (USA) 70-70-68, Thomas Bjorn (DEN) 65-72-71
209 - Miguel Angel Jimenez (ESP) 66-71-72, Lucas Glover (USA) 66-70-73
210 - Anthony Kim (USA) 72-68-70, Phil Mickelson (USA) 70-69-71, Anders Hansen (DEN) 69-69-72, George Coetzee (RSA) 69-69-72, Davis Love III (USA) 70-68-72, Martin Kaymer (GER) 68-69-73
211 - Zach Johnson (USA) 72-68-71, Ryan Palmer (USA) 68-71-72, Tom Lehman (USA) 71-67-73, Chad Campbell (USA) 69-68-74
212 - Raphael Jacquelin (FRA) 74-67-71, Simon Dyson (ENG) 68-72-72, Webb Simpson (USA) 66-74-72, Steve Stricker (USA) 69-71-72, Adam Scott (AUS) 69-70-73
213 - Fredrik Jacobsen (SWE) 70-70-73, Yang Yong-Eun (KOR), 71-69-73 Charl Schwartzel (RSA) 71-67-75
214 - Tom Watson (USA) 72-70-72, Trevor Immelman (RSA) 70-72-72, Charles Howell III (USA) 71-70-73, Richard Green (AUS), 70-71-73, Sergio Garcia (ESP) 70-70-74, Rory McIlroy (NIR) 71-69-74, Robert Rock (ENG) 69-71-74, Pablo Larrazabal (ESP) 68-70-76
215 - Bo Van Pelt (USA) 73-69-73, Bubba Watson (USA) 69-72-74, Yuta Ikeda (JPN) 69-71-75, Tom Lewis (ENG) 65-74-76
216 - Louis Oosthuizen (RSA) 72-70-74, Richard McEvoy (ENG) 69-72-75, Noh Seung-Yul (KOR) 69-72-75, Robert Allenby (AUS) 69-72-75
217 - Gary Woodland (USA) 75-68-74, Peter Uihlein (USA) 71-71-75, Mark Wilson (USA) 74-68-75, Gary Boyd (ENG) 71-70-76, Jason Day (AUS) 71-70-76, Kyle Stanley (USA) 68-72-77, Jeff Overton (USA) 68-71-78
218 - KJ Choi (KOR) 71-72-75, Henrik Stenson (SWE) 72-71-75, Jim Furyk (USA) 72-70-76, Kenneth Ferrie (ENG) 71-71-76, Stewart Cink (USA) 70-71-77, Stephen Gallacher (SCO) 70-71-77, Rory Sabbatini (RSA) 71-70-77
219 - Ryan Moore (USA) 69-74-76, Floris De Vries (NED) 70-73-76, Edoardo Molinari (ITA) 69-74-76, Harrison Frazar (USA) 72-70-77
220 - Simon Khan (ENG) 71-72-77, Fredrik Andersson Hed (SWE) 68-75-77, Gregory Bourdy (FRA) 73-70-77, Ricky Barnes (USA) 68-74-78
221 - Paul Casey (ENG) 74-69-78, Gregory Havret (FRA) 72-71-78, Bill Haas (USA) 72-70-79, Justin Rose (ENG) 72-70-79, Joost Luiten (NED) 73-69-79
222 - Spencer Levin (USA) 72-69-81
223 - Matthew Millar (AUS) 71-72-80
224 - Paul Lawrie (SCO) 73-70-81
225 - Hwang Jung-Gon (KOR) 68-74-83