Ross McGowan fired the round of the week on the fifth day of The European Tour’s Qualifying School Final Stage, an eight under par 64 that launched the Englishman to the top of the leaderboard and within touching distance of a return to The Race to Dubai.
He was joined at the top on 17 under par by Daniel Im after the American birdied two of his last three holes for a round of 66, with their nearest challengers three shots further back.
Below them, the battle for European Tour spots intensified in perfect conditions on the Stadium Course at PGA Catalunya Resort – a European Tour destination – and, with the top 25 and ties winning their cards, seven under par would currently be enough.
McGowan enjoyed four successful years on The European Tour, finishing 12th in The 2009 Race to Dubai, before losing his card after the 2011 season, and his bogey-free round – which included a miraculous recovery shot from a path on the 17th – means he can dare to dream of the big time once again.
It would mean a lot to be back on The European Tour - it's been tough these last few years
“I was frustrated yesterday when I shot 73,” said the 33 year old. “I didn’t hit the ball very well tee to green but fortunately holed a few putts, and today I really focused on finding the fairways and finding the greens and just let it happen.
“I hit a couple close on 14 and 15, a couple of five irons in there to probably less than six feet combined, so that makes it quite nice when you can go birdie-eagle and just separate yourself a bit.
“I think I’m drawing on my past experience from 2007 through 2011 when I had my European Tour card. The last few years I’ve had several injuries and that’s been frustrating but the last four or five weeks the game’s been there and I’ve been playing nicely.
“It would mean a lot to be back on The European Tour. It’s been tough these last few years. I’ve not really thought of giving up but it’s just frustrating, not really playing that great, having injuries and lay-offs, trying to come back and just trying to motivate yourself every time you turn up at a tournament, it’s pretty tough.
“It would mean a lot to get back out there and start competing with the top guys and try to get myself back up to where I was and hopefully surpass it in the World Rankings.”
Im came into the week on the back of the disappointment of missing out on a European Tour card through the European Challenge Tour, dropping out of the top 15 of the Road to Oman Rankings on the final day of the season at the NBO Golf Classic Grand Final.
The 30 year old is yet to enjoy full playing status on The European Tour but today’s round, featuring six birdies and an eagle, has put him in a strong position with 18 holes to play.
“I’m hitting it really well,” said the Californian. “It’s quite a bit of a ball-striking course, you just have to put yourself in position to have a birdie putt, the greens are quite soft so it’s quite easy to hit it close to the hole and I’ve been pretty lucky with that this week.
“Passive-aggressive is the word I like to use in a situation like this. The Stadium is a tough course – today I felt like I couldn’t miss a shot and ended up making a double on 13, and it could happen like that. You really have to be focused and make sure you execute your shots.
“This will be a huge gift to finish the year and start a new year. It would mean a lot because one year I played with a conditional status and I didn’t get into very big events.
“I played quite well but I wasn’t really close to keeping my card with that limited amount of tournaments and hopefully finishing high here will give me a good position on a category where I could play and get into some big events.”
Notable moves on the penultimate day came from Australian Jason Scrivener, whose fine 67 moved him to 11 under par, and Englishman Richard McEvoy, whose bogey-free 68 took him inside the top 25 by one shot.
His compatriot Matthew Southgate, meanwhile, matched him with a round of four under par as he seeks to close out a difficult year, during which he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, with a fairytale return to The European Tour.
Ireland’s Paul Dunne – familiar to millions after leading The Open Championship this year as an amateur heading into the final round – had a tidy round of 69 to finish on ten under par and within sight of a maiden season on The Race to Dubai.
Among those with work to do in the final round is Italian Edoardo Molinari, the former Ryder Cup star currently on four under par and in need of a big move if he wants to extend his six-year stay on The European Tour.