Tournament favourite Mikko Ilonen put aside the heartbreak of missing out on this week’s US Open Championship to move into the lead after the third round of the SK Golf Challenge in his native Finland.
The 28 year old from Lahti tried to qualify for the season’s second Major Championship in the European Qualifying Tournament at Walton Heath two weeks ago but despite putting together some of his best golf of the season from tee to green, an inability to get the ball in the hole saw him miss out on the qualifying mark by a couple of shots.
Undaunted, the two time winner on The European Tour International Schedule used the time to return to Finland for a three week break to accomplish three important things: support the burgeoning European Challenge Tour event in his homeland; move house; and attend the wedding of two close friends.
All three things were completed successfully especially the former as Ilonen, understandably carrying the bulk of the home support, carded a third round 68 at St Laurence Golf in Lohja for a seven under par total of 206 and a one shot lead over England’s Andrew Willey, who posted a fine 66 for 207.
“Obviously I was bitterly disappointed not to qualify for the US Open,” he said. “It was frustrating because I had putted well in Wales the week before on slightly slower greens and then when I came to Walton Heath and their slightly faster putting surfaces, I just couldn’t get the pace of them at all.
“I think the longest putt I made for birdie all day over the two rounds there was only about a metre and a half, but that is sometimes the way it goes and you have to accept it.
“Having said that, I promised the promoters of the SK Challenge that if I didn’t make it to Torrey Pines, I would definitely come and play in their tournament and, hopefully, help promote golf in Finland as a whole.
“These guys are doing a great job and have put on an excellent Challenge Tour tournament at pretty short notice and I know they are trying to stage a European Tour event in the future. So anything I can do to help them achieve that goal, I will.”
A classy individual off the golf course, the winner of the 2000 British Amateur Championship showed his style on the course too with a controlled third round 68 in difficult blustery conditions.
Level par to the turn, Ilonen prospered on the Lohja course’s easier back nine, chipping close for birdie on the 11th, hitting an eight iron to 12 feet for birdie on the 14th and adding another birdie at the par five 15th after he reached the green in two and two putted.
Second placed Willey looked an unlikely contender to fill that spot as the third round moved towards its conclusion but a storming finish saw the 32 year old from Nottingham card five birdies in the closing six holes to be home in 31 for 66.
Five players share third place going into the final round including one player inspired by the successes of Ilonen on The European Tour – Finnish amateur Henri Satama who showed his ability with a scintillating 66, a round which featured eight birdies in total.