PLAYER starts day in a tie for 67th place, player finishes day in a tie for fourth. On the Saturday, player is out early in unfashionable second match, on the Sunday, player is out late in second last match. Player has been a pro for nearly 15 years, has seen most of what there is see and has holed a putt to win the Ryder Cup.

Player scratches head, and we realise that golf truly is a funny ol' game.

Even when it blew up a fresh breeze at Baltray yesterday, and even when Paul McGinley mastered the elements with a highly impressive 66, it seemed one more case of too little too late for another home competitor at the Nissan Irish Open. When he shrugged, "I'm hoping the wind stays up, " there was still an hour and a half to go before overnight leader Peter Lonard began his round.

But the wind did stay up, and as weather-beaten player after weather-beaten player stumbled over the line, McGinley's smile widened. If at one stage he was remarkably only two shots adrift of Lonard, to finish the third round four behind the Australian after appearing a complete also-ran is one of the stories of this season's European Tour.

For a while, it looked as if an extraorindary day could pan out even better for McGinley as Lonard had a major wobble at the seventh where he ran up a calamitous triple bogey, which was followed immediately by a bogey. However, the 37 year-old recovered to card a 72 for a 10 under par total of 206, one stroke clear of fellow countryman Brett Rumford, and two ahead of South Africa's James Kingston.

Next comes McGinley, who has now given the term 'moving day' a whole new meaning, in a logjam of eight players on six under. Almost as surprisingly, Padraig Harrington, who had looked dead and buried halfway through his round, held on for a share of 12th place on 211, five shots out of the lead.

While Lonard was probably still in the land of nod, McGinley at last turned some of the local knowledge he gleaned from his playing days here to good use. Out just before 8.30am with the breeze already picking up, he put an end to a month of frustration with that impressive six under par 66 on a course where he remains a member.

His recent bleak mood was only compounded by the fact that he led the statistics for greens in regulation at last weekend's British Open and still contrived to finish in a lowly tie for 57th. "That's an indication of how it's been going for me. Actually, I have been feeling for a while that my game's as good as it's ever been, but I just haven't been converting the chances, " he said.

"I know that I'm going to have times in the future when the putter goes cold." This time, McGinley's putter was several degrees warmer than at Troon during his nines of 34 and 32, and particularly at the final hole where he drained a 30-footer for his seventh birdie of the round.

"Everybody goes through patches like I've gone through.

Yes, it's been a lull, but I've been in worse situations than that and come through. Hopefully, this is a start of a run in the other direction." Following the serious knee injury in his late teens that forced him to quit Gaelic football, he began to concentrate more on golf and spent many winter weekends at Co Louth with his dad Mick. "This was my second club after Grange, and I have to say that I'm so proud of the place. When you come home to your own country's open championship, you want to be proud of the tournament and the Irish players are certainly proud of this course." Although the members of the 2002 Europe Ryder Cup team are exempt for the WGCNEC Invitational at Firestone next month, McGinley is currently not in the field for the USPGA which is being staged at Whistling Straits the week before the NEC.

A strong finish here could earn him a late call-up to the final major championship of the season which would also give him the opportunity to boost his receding chances of Ryder Cup qualification.

Meanwhile, when Harrington glanced up at a scoreboard on the 11th hole and found himself trailing Lonard by a massive 11 shots, it seemed that his tournament was as good as over. None too surprising after a dismal opening nine of three over par 40, but the mood soon changed as the world number eight came back in 31 for 211 and a five under par 211.

"Look, I'm thrilled to have any sort of chance, " Harrington explained, "I was scatterbrained at one stage during the round, I was thinking about how I was swinging and not how I should be scoring. I'd taken far too long to settle down out there, I was complicating things too much at the start, and I thought I was out of it." With McGinley and Harrington suddenly finding themselves in contention for the first prize of .316,000, there was no good news for Darren Clarke. Seven shots off the pace going into the third round, a low number would certainly have catapulted him through the field, but he ended going spectacularly in the other direction, and once again finds himself in an early Sunday pairing.

Admitting he played "atrociously", Clarke stood on the 18th tee desperate to avoid a bogey six and the humiliation of an 80, and he duly made a birdie for a 78 and a three over par total of 219. However, there was no fit of pique as his recent meeting of minds with sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout appears to have improved his demeanour, if not his golf.

Lonard's rationale for today's final round is to "play the par fives reasonably well and not to make any sixes on par threes". He is due a win, and four strokes may be too much for McGinley to make up. But then, it has already been a weekend of surprises, and what price one more?