Surprise Brit hits big time

SOUTHPORT, England — The English had high hopes of a first British Open triumph since Nick Faldo in 1992, looking to the likes of Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose and Paul Casey to provide it.

Few thought that the Englishman just behind the leaders in fourth place at Royal Birkdale would be Simon Wakefield — and even he wasn't really expecting it.

”I was very nervous this morning over breakfast,“ said Wakefield, who began the day tied for 22nd. ”I might not sleep tonight. It's a very unfamiliar territory for me. I am going to try and relax tonight and try not to think about it.“

Without a tournament victory apart from a pro-am in South Africa, the 34-year-old Wakefield is something of a journeyman. He's missed 10 cuts in 22 events this year, yet his even-par 70 on Saturday gave him a 5-over total of 215. Only leader Greg Norman at 2-over and defending champion Padraig Harrington and K.J. Choi at 4-over are ahead of Wakefield.

Asked how it would sound if he were handed the claret jug as Open winner, Wakefield paused and replied: ”Bizarre, to be honest. It's a long way off my mind at the moment.

”There's a lot of golf to be played. It's a world-class field, and I'm not even going to be thinking of that tonight. It's a fairy-tale situation.“

Wakefield's position on the leader board didn't look possible when he bogeyed the fourth and sixth holes and went to the turn 2-over for the round. But he birdied three on the back nine, holing a putt from the back of the green at the par-3 12th, chipping in from the back of the 14th green for another, and taking four at the par-5 17th.

”I'm going to go out tomorrow obviously in the same frame of mind as I've done today, be patient,“ Wakefield said. ”I appreciate that everybody else is going to be making bogeys and double-bogeys and others, and I thought that would be the key.“

Although Wakefield has been to Royal Birkdale twice as a fan, watching Ian Baker-Finch win in 1991 and Mark O'Meara triumph 10 years ago, he had never played the course.

His only real inconvenience Saturday was a 10-minute holdup when the wind blew his stationary ball a few inches onto the green at the eighth.

”I was obviously able to mark it, but then I was not comfortable with playing the putt because we were getting gusts of 30 mph,“ Wakefield said.

”I spoke to one of the referees who called in and they had the same situation on the 10th. So we just hung on and basically waited for the wind to die down. It didn't seem to die down, but we got on with it anyway. I made a good two-putt, and we moved on.“

Despite a runner-up finish behind Jeev Milkha Singh at last month's Austria Open, Wakefield's only real claim to fame is that his uncle is a former cricket star, wicketkeeper Bob Taylor.

”He seems to get a mention everywhere I go. He's my mom's brother. There's not much else I can tell you about that,“ he told reporters anxious to find out something about the Englishman. ”I don't see him that much, to be honest.“