Charlie Ford, seeking his second Challenge Tour title, sits on top of a packed leaderboard after the third day of the Allianz Challenge France.
Ford won his maiden professional title at the Turkish Airlines Challenge almost exactly 12 months ago, and the Englishman is in pole position to double his tally after a sparkling round of 66 at Golf Disneyland, on the outskirts of Paris, moved him to 13 under par.
The 26 year old currently leads by one stroke from his young compatriot Tommy Fleetwood, who equalled the course record with a stunning 63, and Germany’s Nicolas Meitinger.
Ford exploded out of the blocks with three straight birdies, and although his momentum was briefly checked by a bogey at the fifth hole, he immediately responded with two more gains to turn in 31. The back nine was a steadier affair, with a three-putt bogey at the 17th hole cancelling out a birdie at the 14th, but his round ended on a satisfying note with an eighth and final birdie on the 18th hole.
Ford said: “For the first 12 holes I struck the ball really well, then for the last six I had to scramble a little bit, but it’s always pleasing to finish with a birdie. I’m in a good position, but I’m going to have to go low again tomorrow, because Tommy’s shown what can be done today.
“I haven’t really got a target in mind as such – I’m sure I’ll be taking a look at the leaderboards tomorrow, but I won’t let it affect my game. My win in Turkey will probably be in the back of my mind – I seem to play quite well at this time of the year, so hopefully it’s a good omen!”
Having started the day down in 27th place after successive rounds of 69, Fleetwood charged into contention with a birdie blitz from the fourth hole. For the third day running the 20 year old carded a double bogey at the third hole, but he promptly made amends with two huge birdie putts on the next two holes, before adding a further seven birdies to equal the course record set yesterday by overnight leader Jamie McLeary of Scotland.
Fleetwood already has two runner-up finishes to his name in his fledgling professional career, first at last year’s English Challenge and later at the M2M Russian Challenge Cup, but is hopeful his near misses will inspire him to make it third time lucky.
He said: “I actually called it on the first tee this morning. [Playing partner] Espen [Kofstad] said that the wind might help us today, and I said to him that maybe one of us would shoot a course record – and that’s what happened! It hadn’t looked that way after the third hole – I actually hit a decent drive, but the second shot always seems to catch me out.
“And it didn’t help that I three putted from about ten feet. So I was pretty angry walking off that green. But then I holed a 50 footer on the fourth, which rattled in at a fair rate, so I maybe had a bit of luck there. Then I holed another huge putt on the fifth which got me on a roll, and after that I never really looked like making a mistake.
“I came close to winning twice last year, and it’s not like I really did anything wrong either time, so I can take some confidence from that. I played well but was just beaten by the better man on the day, and hopefully someone else is saying that about me tomorrow.”
Meitinger, who shares the same coach as World Number Two Martin Kaymer, has six victories to his name on the Satellite EPD Tour, but believes tomorrow’s assignment is a far tougher task.
The German, who notched four birdies and an eagle in his round of 67, said: “I didn’t play as well as I did yesterday, but I holed a few crucial par putts to keep the momentum going. The highlight was my eagle, which was in memory of Seve, as I holed my pitch from behind the green. So that one was for him.
“I’m looking forward to the final day now. I came close to winning in Colombia at the start of the year, so hopefully I can get the job done here. But it’s not easy to win out here on the Challenge Tour – it’s a big step up from the EPD Tour. Here you know someone’s going to go really low on the last day, whereas on the EPD Tour, if you’re one or two shots ahead, you know you can par in and still win the tournament. So the level’s much higher, but I’m feeling confident about my game at the moment.”
Spaniard Agustin Domingo, a winner in France on the Allianz Tour last month, is currently in a share of fourth place on 11 under par alongside England’s Jason Palmer, who is attached to the same golf club as Ford, a former classmate at school.
Domingo dedicated his round of 66 to Ballesteros, who was a close friend of his uncle, Domingo Hospital.
He said: “It was a special day – I thought about Seve a lot today. He was my hero when I was growing up, I saw him play a few times at the Spanish Open, and my uncle introduced me to him once. Today I managed to hit a few shots Seve would’ve been proud of, so hopefully I can win and dedicate it to him.”
Palmer did most of his best work early in the day, notching four birdies in his first seven holes before adding another at the 18th to sign for a flawless round of 67 which moved him firmly into contention to capture his maiden Challenge Tour title on only his fourth appearance.
The Englishman, whose only professional victory came on the Satellite Alps Tour last year, said: “My aim at the start of the week was to avoid making too many bogeys and my last one was on the third hole yesterday, so I’ve got to be pretty happy with that. I got off to a great start today, and then just played steady golf after the turn. I’m sure I’ll be a little bit nervous on the final day because I haven’t been in this position on the Challenge Tour before but hopefully I can channel the nerves in the right way.”