On a day when the overnight leaders either stood still or went backwards, flamboyant Finn Antti Ahokas made great strides forward to go into the final round of the ALLIANZ Golf Open Grand Toulouse as the man to catch.
Ahokas, who is easy to spot with his bright blond locks and even brighter trousers, sets the clubhouse target on 16 under par, one stroke clear of Austrian Ronald Steiner, who dropped back to second place with a bogey on the last hole at Golf de Tolouse-Seilh, in south west France.
Ahokas, who won twice on the Challenge Tour last year but has endured a tough time on The European Tour this term, is in need of a first victory of the season to guarantee one of the 45 places available at the season-ending Apulia San Domenico Grand Final.
And the 24 year old Finn feels his game is in good enough shape after compiling an up and down round of 67 which ended on a bright note with a birdie at the last hole.
He said: “It was a strange day today, because I was playing as well as I did on previous days, but then the bogeys seem to come from nowhere. I didn’t drive the ball as well as I have done, so I was in trouble on a few holes. But you can tend to get away with it a bit more on this course, and I was driving it better towards the end of my round, so that gives me confidence to take into tomorrow.
“The key to my round was my putting, which is normally the case. I think I only had 24 putts, and I only missed one from under five metres. So if I can putt as well as that again tomorrow, I should be in a good position. It’s all about keeping it nice and tight on the front nine and not making any mistakes, and then hopefully I can turn it up a gear on the back nine. I haven’t been in this position for a while now, but I’m not stressing about it. I feel very positive about the final round – I’m looking forward to it.”
Ahokas will play in the last group with Steiner, who is seeking a first professional victory which would guarantee him a European Tour card for the first time.
Despite that dropped shot on the last – his first bogey since the 17th hole on the opening day – the Austrian professed himself pleased with a round of 69 which included four birdies.
He said: “I was happier today with my 69 than my 65 yesterday, because I didn’t play as well today but I still managed to get it round. At the end the weather was against us, and I’m not a rain person so I struggled a little on the last two holes. When I woke up this morning, I didn’t have the same feeling as yesterday. I was a bit more cautious with my approach shots, so I didn’t give myself as many chances. But hopefully I can get the feeling back tomorrow. I haven’t won since turning professional, so it’s probably time I did.”
The main dangers to Steiner’s hopes of a first title could be the in-form Portuguese Jose-Filipe Lima and the rejuvenated Englishman Robert Coles, who lurk two shots off the pace in a group which also includes Switzerland’s Julien Clément, Frenchman Charles-Edouard Russo and Austria’s Martin Wiegele.
Coles might have felt aggrieved not to be plying his trade back on The European Tour by now, having looked on course to capture his third Challenge Tour title of the season in Geneva two months ago, only for injury to strike on the third day and force him to withdraw from the event.
The physical injury took around a month to heal but the mental scars lingered a while longer, although Coles feels he is getting back towards the sort of form which saw him win in Morocco and Ireland earlier in the season.
Coles, currently ninth in the Challenge Tour Rankings and all but guaranteed a return to The European Tour, said: “I’ve hit some shots this week which I haven’t hit for a while – probably since my injury in fact. My game hasn’t felt quite right for a while now, but it’s slowly coming back. I’ve been hitting a lot of bad shots and not many good ones recently, which isn’t a great combination! But this week has been a different story. I’ve been working hard since I got back from my injury, but I haven’t been quite at the races until the last couple of days. We’re still not quite there, but the signs are better.
“The injury’s fine now, although it might’ve taken a bit longer to recover mentally. Obviously I had a great chance of winning in Geneva, and if I’d managed that I could have gone straight onto the main Tour. It’s only natural to dwell on what might’ve happened, but you can’t afford to think about the what ifs, so it hasn’t really done me any favours. I needed to move on, and the easiest way to do that is to play better, which is what I’ve done this week.”
Coincidentally, one of the men who has taken advantage of Coles’ enforced absence through injury is Lima, whose ball the Englishman was running to retrieve when he suffered his calf strain.
In the meantime Lima has climbed to second in the Rankings thanks largely to his victory at last week’s ECCO Tour Championship, and he will now bid to become the first player to win back to back titles on this season’s Challenge Tour.
Lima, whose round of 66 included seven birdies and a solitary bogey, said: “I’m playing well, although I’ve still made some stupid mistakes this week. I set myself the target of shooting ten under, which might sound ridiculous but it’s possible on this course. I was going well today without making many putts, but then I made a mistake on the 15th which set me back a bit. But I came back with a birdie on the 17th, and I have to be happy with a 66.
“I’ve been playing with a new set of clubs for about five weeks now, and I like them. Obviously I won with them in Denmark last week and I’m playing well again with them here this week, so I think I’ll stick with them now! I don’t get as much backspin with them, which helps out here because the greens are quite soft after the rain, so sometimes you can get too much spin. The rain has also softened up the fairways, which means the ball’s not travelling as far. So some of the par fives are playing pretty long, especially the 14th. But there are plenty of birdie chances on the par fours, so it’s not too big a problem.”
None of the overnight leaders managed to break par, as Matthew Zions’ round of 72 saw the Australian remain on 13 under par, whilst Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts dropped back to 11 under par after his 74, with Argentina’s Alan Wagner one shot further back after he signed for a three over par round of 75.