THOMAS LEVET has been receiving some encouragement out on the course from his countryman Jean Van de Velde who is working here as a roving reporter for the BBC.

Van de Velde mentioned on air that Levet could see him standing up on the edge of the fairway on several holes, but then someone else countered that Van de Velde is about the last person you would want in your eyeline coming down an important hole of a British Open.

If Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen and even a lurking Tiger Woods have their way, Levet won't have to worry to about the Van de Velde effect ? he will be out of contention before the heavies have their say during today's shakedown at Troon.

Yet with such an A-list of players in the mix, it falls to the unheralded Todd Hamilton to take a one shot advantage into the final round.

Compiling a second 67 in a row for an eight-under-par 205, the American, who has been a serial winner on the Japanese Tour, heads Els who has a hold of second place on his own at seven under.

But the South African is by no means the only threat as Mickelson and Goosen, who fought it out so memorably at last month's US Open, along with the genial Levet are all just two adrift of Hamilton, while Woods, only four back, will no doubt be aware that Justin Leonard clawed back a five-stroke deficit on his way to victory here in 1997.

If Mickelson strayed off the beaten path, he saw two wild drives at the 15th and the 18th somehow stay in bounds. At the 15th, he was inches from destruction and then at the last, his hooked tee shot struck a metal fence and rebounded back into play. On both occasions he made par to finish with a 68, and in an extraordinary feat of consistency he has now not dropped a single shot in 37 holes. If there were those fleeting glimpses of the reckless Mickelson of old, such remarkable consistency puts him in an ideal position to add this championship to his Masters triumph.

Els didn't make his expected move early on and a one under front nine hardly seemed sufficient as Levet was already surging clear.

But following a bogey at the 11th, he played the remaining seven holes ? as tough a stretch as there is on the British Open rota of courses ? in an outstanding three under par for a smooth 68.

At one stage, it seemed as if Levet would open a lead such was the quality of his play over the front nine. In the end, he moved two shots in front and obviously blocking out the sight of Van de Velde he putted beautifully, registering three birdies to make the turn in 33. Now he needed to consolidate, to protect his score, but he promptly double-bogeyed the tough 11th and then lost another at the par-five 16th. A level par 71 was disappointing after such a hot start.

While overnight leader Skip Kendall drifted off the pace, it was the turn of another relatively unknown American to move into contention.

Unfazed by playing with Els, Hamilton crept up the leaderboard and eventually took over from Levet before going on to card a best-of-the-day 67.

The 38 year-old who won the Honda Classic on the US Tour earlier in the season emulated Mickelson with his bogey free effort that featured four birdies.

So with four major championships in one season, it was also four seasons in one day. The conditions changed almost by the minute and so did the leaderboard. As caddies worked overtime with umbrellas and wet gear for two sustained periods, it seemed as if the prophets of meteorological doom had finally got it right.

For the first two rounds, the threat of strong winds and squalls has dissipated leaving this part of Scotland's west coast to luxuriate and in what they, and we, call summer, but yesterday the leaders were hit by a couple of venomous cloudbursts which finally brought a smile to many of the R&A's faces.

Not that the course, which is neither running frighteningly fast nor demanding nerves of steel on evenly paced greens, was made much more difficult by the weather. This rather dour, featureless links continues to stave off demolition due in the main to the lurking presence of its cavernous bunkers.

The last time the championship was staged in this country, the third round was marked by apocalyptic conditions during which Woods cocooned himself in layers of clothing to such an extent that he resembled someone leaving the tent and starting the final push to Everest's summit.

Showing signs that he really was "close" to his very best, the world number one stormed to the turn in an impressive four under par 32 and despite dropping a shot at the 12th, played the rest of the treacherous back nine solidly for a three under par 68. "I've a fighting chance, " said Woods, and in another time he would be heavily backed to chase down a four shot lead on the final day of a major.

But he has the world's three form players in Els, Mickelson and Goosen kicking up dust in front, and Tiger in pursuit in 2004 is a different animal from say, 2000. Els, Mickelson and Goosen have been in this rarified position before, and they will have slept well last night, unlike the inexperienced Hamilton who was probably watching the alarm clock intermittently from five am. The example of Ben Curtis notwithstanding, he will hardly survive this whiteknuckle ride.

As for Darren Clarke, the promise of that useful opening round faded with a lacklustre 73 for a one over par 214. He even badly thinned an easy approach to the third hole with a short iron, a shot that just about summed about his day. Meanwhile, Colin Montgomerie predictably went backwards with a 72 to finish five off the pace.

The wheat will stand later today as the chaff is blown away. Take your pick from one of the big three.


205 Todd Hamilton (USA) 71 67 67 206 Ernie Els (Rsa) 69 69 68 207 Phil Mickelson (USA) 73 66 68, Retief Goosen (Rsa) 69 70 68, Thomas Levet (Fra) 66 70 71 208 Barry Lane 69 68 71 209 Tiger Woods (USA) 70 71 68, Scott Verplank (USA) 69 70 70 210 Mike Weir (Can) 71 68 71, Colin Montgomerie 69 69 72, Skip Kendall (USA) 69 66 75 211 Lee Westwood 72 71 68, Nick Price (Zim) 71 71 69, KJ Choi (Kor) 68 69 74 212 Shaun Micheel (USA) 70 72 70, Davis Love III (USA) 72 69 71, Kim Felton (Aus) 73 67 72, Kenny Perry (USA) 69 70 73, Michael Campbell (Nzl) 67 71 74 213 Mark O'Meara (USA) 71 74 68, Paul Casey 66 77 70, Justin Leonard (USA) 70 72 71 214 Bob Estes (USA) 73 72 69, Mark Calcavecchia (USA) 72 73 69, Keiichiro Fukabori (Jpn) 73 71 70, Tetsuji Hiratsuka (Jpn) 70 74 70, Bo Van Pelt (USA) 72 71 71, Stewart Cink (USA) 72 71 71, Trevor Immelman (Rsa) 69 74 71, Takashi Kamiyama (Jpn) 70 73 71, Andrew Oldcorn 73 70 71, Hunter Mahan (USA) 74 69 71, Ian Poulter 71 72 71, Paul Bradshaw 75 67 72, Joakim Haeggman (Swe) 69 73 72, Stuart Appleby (Aus) 71 70 73, Gary Evans 68 73 73, Darren Clarke 69 72 73, Rodney Pampling (Aus) 72 68 74, Vijay Singh (Fij) 68 70 76 215 Jyoti Randhawa (Ind) 73 72 70, Steve Flesch (USA) 75 70 70, Tjaart Van Der Walt (Rsa) 70 73 72, Kenneth Ferrie 68 74 73, Brad Faxon (USA) 74 68 73, Adam Scott (Aus) 73 68 74 216 Sean Whif. n 73 72 71, Miguel Angel Jimenez (Spa) 74 71 71, Rory Sabbatini (Rsa) 71 72 73, David Toms (USA) 71 71 74 217 Ignacio Garrido (Spa) 71 74 72, Paul Broadhurst 71 74 72, Charles Howell III (USA) 75 70 72, Bob Tway (USA) 76 68 73, Mathias Gronberg (Swe) 70 74 73, Raphael Jacquelin (Fra) 72 72 73, Shigeki Maruyama (Jpn) 71 72 74, Steve Lowery (USA) 69 73 75, Gary Emerson 70 71 76 218 Jerry Kelly 75 70 73, Christian Cevaer (Fra) 70 74 74 219 James Kingston (Rsa) 73 72 74, Carl Pettersson (Swe) 68 77 74, Mark Foster 71 72 76, Rich Beem (USA) 69 73 77 220 Paul McGinley 69 76 75, Martin Erlandsson (Swe) 73 70 77, (x) Stuart Wilson 68 75 77, Chris DiMarco (USA) 71 71 78, Marten Olander (Swe) 68 74 78 221 Paul Wesselingh 73 72 76, Alistair Forsyth 68 74 79 224 Sandy Lyle 70 73 81 TODAY'S TEE TIMES 8.10 Sandy Lyle 8.20 Paul Wesselingh, Alastair Forsyth 8.30 Chris DiMarco, Marten Olander 8.40 Martin Erlandsson, Stuart Wilson 8.50 Rich Beem, Paul McGinley 9.05 Carl Pettersson, Mark Foster 9.15 Christian Cévaër, James Kingston 9.25 Gary Emerson Jerry Kelly 9.35 Steve Lowery, Shigeki Maruyama 9.45 Raphaël Jacquelin, Mathias Grönberg 9.55 Charles Howell Bob Tway 10.05 Ignacio Garrido Paul Broadhurst 10.15 Rory Sabbatini David Toms 10.30 Sean Whif. n Miguel Angel Jiménez 10.40 Brad Faxon Adam Scott 10.50 Tjaart van der Walt Kenneth Ferrie 11.00 Steve Flesch Jyoti Randhawa 11.10 Vijay Singh Rodney Pampling 11.20 Gary Evans, Darren Clarke 11.30 Stuart Appleby, Joakim Haeggman 11.40 Paul Bradshaw, Ian Poulter 11.55 Andrew Oldcorn, Hunter Mahan 12.05 Trevo r Immelman, Takashi Kamiyama 12.15 Stewart Cink, Bo Van Pelt 12.25 Tetsuji Hiratsuka, Keiichiro Fukabori 12.35 Bob Estes, Mark Calcavecchia 12.45 Paul Casey, Justin Leonard 12.55 Mark O'Meara, Michael Campbell 13.05 Kim Felton, Kenny Perry 13.20 Shaun Micheel, Davis Love 13.30 Nick Price, KJ Choi 13.40 Skip Kendall, Lee Westwood 13.50 Mike Weir, Colin Montgomerie 14.00 Scott Verplank, Tiger Woods 14.10 Thomas Levet, Barry Lane 14.20 Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen 14.30 Todd Hamilton, Ernie Els