THE last time a Frenchman won the British Open, graphite shafts, laser range-finders and Tiger Woods were unheard of. It's close on 100 years since Arnaud Massy supped champagne from the claret jug, and for a while yesterday at Troon it seemed that the genial Thomas Levet was making strides to bridge that gap.

But like so many before him, Levet faltered on this course's demanding back nine and the unknown American Todd Hamilton unexpectedly finds himself with a one-shot lead going into today's final round of the third major championship of the season.

With the example set last year by his countryman Ben Curtis, would Hamilton be expected then to go on and claim the title? Well he might, but if he chooses to look in his rear-view mirror he will see Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen ? world golf 's form players ? ready to put their feet down.

Because in a telling reprise of last month's US Open, this is a leaderboard that reflects just how dominant Els, Mickelson and Goosen have become over the past couple of months. Els, who won this championship in 2002, is on his own in second place, with Mickelson and Goosen tied for third alongside Levet just two strokes behind Hamilton.

Add in Tiger Woods, four adrift of the lead, and it's hard to see the 38-year-old American, who has never contended in a major before, not being run down by his pursuers.

Because he lives and breathes, and because of the vagaries of links golf which were highlighted yesterday by two vicious squalls that swept over the course, Hamilton has a chance, but this championship is now surely the preserve of the current Big Three.

"I think right now in our careers Phil and I live for these tournaments, " said Els following his three-under-par 68. "Phil has never done well at the British Open, but he's changed his game. He's practising differently, he's playing differently. He's got so much talent, he's basically found a way of playing major championship golf now.

"As for me, obviously I'd like to be leading but I'm right there. But a one-shot lead doesn't mean that much now.

I think anybody within four has a legitimate chance." If Els was asked about his rivalry with Mickelson, he wasn't overlooking the threat of Goosen. In fact, if Els and Mickelson concentrate too much on one another today, Goosen is once again perfectly placed to take advantage.

As for Woods, who had four birdies in the first seven holes, he failed to sustain the momentum and finished with a three-under-par 68. "I knew I needed a good round and I've given myself a fighting chance, " he said.

Without a bogey now in 37 holes, Mickelson was only one shot adrift of Hamilton's bestof-the-day 67. The American is unlikely to repeat that feat, not in the face of such fierce competition.