Seven birdies on Saturday were just the ticket for Antonio Hortal at the Shankai Classic presented by IDG as the Spaniard carded a second round 65 at Chongqing Poly Golf Club to lead by one from Johan Edfors and Mark Tullo.
After the stop-start nature of the previous two days, the man from Madrid took advantage of more benign conditions in China to go bogey-free round the 7,294 yard layout and post ten under par, carding red numbers at the fourth, sixth and eighth to turn in 32, before a second half that saw him make gains at the 11th, 15th, 16th and 18th.
Hortal was more than aware of how precarious his position was entering the final four events at 13th on the European Challenge Tour Rankings, but a win on Sunday would not only see him awarded a cheque for €44,416, it would also ensure a maiden season as part of The Race to Dubai next year.
He has been in this position before having won in his first start of the year at the Challenge de Catalunya, and he admitted after his round that the key tomorrow will be to stick to his routine and use the inevitable nerves as a means to spur him to victory, whatever the weather throws at him.
“I played very nice today, better then yesterday – well, Thursday – but I am really happy,” said the 25 year old. “I hit 17 greens, so I played well. I was hitting it long from the tee and finding the fairways, then hitting a lot of greens too, and I put some of my irons very close so I was able to hole some putts as well.
“It helped seeing Johan (Edfors) and Lasse (Jensen) playing well alongside me, it gave me good momentum, and it was good to see them going low.
“Obviously I will be nervous tomorrow, but I will try and use that as a positive for me and enjoy the day. I can’t know what will happen, so I will just play my best.
“The weather is changing because today we expected rain and we only had it for one hole, so tomorrow I don’t know what will happen – rain, showers, fog. Whatever it is I will just try and stick to my routine, and if there is rain I will play the same as on the first day. Anything can still happen though, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens tomorrow.”
One of Hortal’s two nearest challengers is three time European Tour winner Edfors, who is back at the sharp end of the leaderboard after issues with his sciatic nerve had plagued his recent career.
With his practice limited he has struggled for his best form over the past two years but recent months have seen his health improve, and with it, his golf. While he admitted to feeling the nerves of being in contention once again, he is excited to have a chance at claiming a victory that could not only define his season, but completely turn his career around.
"I've been playing OK for the last month or so and finally I am starting to hit it close to the flags so I can make a few birdies,” said Edfors, who won the 2006 TCL Classic on Chinese soil at Yalong Bay Golf Club. “I've been driving it nicely, so I've been in the middle of the fairway all the time, and hitting good iron shots too. I think I missed my first green of the week today at number nine, but then I holed the chip anyway, so things have been working well.
“It has definitely been a while since I was in contention and I was quite nervous actually, as there's quite a lot at stake here. A win would almost get me back on the main tour next year, and I only have three more events after this one, so I have to take every chance, and make every tournament count. My game is getting better though, so I hope for a strong finish and to keep it going tomorrow.”
One of two overnight leaders at seven under par, Tullo managed to improve his overall score by two on Saturday, but it was not quite enough to retain his previous advantage.
The VACON Open winner struggled on the greens in the second round, missing two or three putts from three feet and in, but believes that a return to his putting form of earlier in the week could still see him contend for the title.
“This golf course is pretty straight forward," said the man from Chile. "There are a few tricky holes but the rest are driver-sand wedge, and at the end my back froze up a bit so I duffed a couple of sand irons 80 yards and made bogey, but it is fine.
“I’m one shot off the lead, and hopefully we’ll get to play tomorrow. I’m not sure what the weather is like, but I feel I am playing well enough to be in the hunt tomorrow, and if a couple of putts fall then I’ll be very happy.”
Of those in the group behind the leading trio, Matteo Delpodio is the best placed at seven under, after an eagle two at the eighth propelled him to a round of 66 and fourth place on his own.
He is one stroke better than a seven strong group in a tie for fifth that includes Björn Åkesson (68), Cyril Bouniol (68), Jensen (69), Bernd Ritthammer (66), Tim Sluiter (67), Alvaro Velasco (68) and the leading Chinese player, Hu Mu (68).
Paul Maddy had led at the start of the day alongside Tullo but he fell back on day three after a 76 saw him finish in a share of 22nd through 36 holes. That is the same mark as compatriot, and former US Amateur Champion, Matthew Fitzpatrick who carded a three under par score of his own on Saturday.