Japan’s Hidemichi Tanaka fired a two under par 70 to open a one shot lead heading into the final round of WGC-American Express Championship at Valderrama. But the man he and all the other challengers will have to watch is the ominous figure of Tiger Woods who returned a third round 69 and now goes into the closing 18 holes a mere two shots behind.
Tanaka, 29, who hails from Hiroshima but now lives in Tokyo, was the tournament’s surprise package when he opened with rounds of 71 and 66 on his debut at Valderrama and, in the third round, he proved it was no fluke with a 70 that included four birdies and just one dropped shot at his second hole.
The Japanese golfer is barely 5 foot 5 inches tall but he is a prodigious hitter and certainly has had no problems coping with a Valderrama course that is just under 7,000 yards long and is officially regarded as one of the toughest tests in Europe. Indeed, he seemed to be revelling in the special atmosphere to be found at a World Golf Championship event and turned out to be a wonderful character at his subsequent press conference.
"This is amazing,” he said through an interpreter. “I’m very surprised but very happy.
“I have won twice on this season’s Japan Tour but this tournament is a lot different because most of the best golfers in the world are here.
“This morning, I was very nervous, but tomorrow I’ve got nothing to lose. I plan just to go out and enjoy it. I am going to smile whatever happens because I believe professional golfers should entertain the crowd.”
Tanaka’s 70 gave him a nine under par three round aggregate of 207 which put him a single shot ahead of Canada’s Mike Weir and America’s Mark Calcavecchia but the man all three might have to watch is Tiger Woods who has climbed into a share of fourth place with Zimbabwe’s Nick Price and is in a perfect position to launch a challenge to win his 10th title of the season.
The undisputed world No. 1 golfer recorded four birdies and dropped just one shot while compiling his second successive 69 and now he has a great chance to become the first golfer in history to win more than $10 million in a single season.
However, barring miracles, it appears likely that he will fall just short of shattering one of the most enduring records in golf because he would need to finish at 17 under par 267 to beat the 68.33 US Tour’s scoring average record that Byron Nelson set back in 1945.
However, by way of consolation, he has now played 50 consecutive competitive rounds of golf at or under par.
“Yes, that is a pretty good record,” he said. “You’d think it would be a daunting, if not impossible task, particularly because we had to play in three Major championships during that run, but somehow I’ve been able to do it.”
Woods then went on to admit that he still hadn’t found his best form at this year’s tournament but said that he was hopeful that he could go on and defend the title he won after a play-off with Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez last year.
“I was able to grind it out today,” he said. “I only hit three greens on the front nine but I still managed to get it out in (one under par) 35 so I’ve got to be pleased with that.
“I am now in good position to go ahead and win this golf tournament and that’s all I wanted to do today. Hopefully, I will play a little better in the morning although you are never sure. All I can do is to go out there and try to do my best. Some days, you try as hard as you can, and it just doesn’t happen. Other days, it seems very easy, so hopefully it will be one of those.”
Further down the leaderboard, England’s Lee Westwood returned a four under par 68 and now seems to be gaining the upper hand in the race to become No. 1 on the Volvo Order of Merit.
Westwood, winner of six titles in Europe this season, went into the American Express event just over £62,000 behind Darren Clarke at the top of the money list but with the Northern Irelander slumping to a 74 in the third round he can jump in front of him with a solid finish in the final round.
Heading into the closing 18 holes, Westwood is in a share of eighth place, worth £111,375, whereas Clarke is tied for 30th place, worth £41,500. Were things to remain the same, that wouldn’t be quite enough for Westwood to overtake his great friend and rival but he still could do it if he moves up a few places nearer the top of the leaderboard.
Sadly, however, Colin Montgomerie’s seven-year reign as Europe’s No. 1 golfer would seem about to be coming to an end. He arrived at Valderrama knowing that only a win would be good enough to give him a chance to win his eighth Volvo Order of Merit title but trod water with a third round 73 and is languishing in a share of 14th place eight shots behind Tanaka.
At this stage, Ireland’s Pardraig Harrington is the leading European Tour member. He scored a one over par 73 in the third round but shares sixth place with America’s Duffy Waldorf, one shot ahead of Westwood, Michael Campbell, Vijay Singh and Bob May.
America’s Rocco Mediate withdrew from the championship prior to the start of the third round. He was suffering from a back injury.