Colin Montgomerie kept on course for his first European Tour victory in 13 months when he moved into a commanding lead after the third round of the Murphy’s Irish Open at Fota Island.
The Scot carded a 68 for a 13 under par total of 200 to increase his overnight lead to three shots, his closest pursuer being young Australian Adam Scott, who won the Alfred Dunhill Championship in South Africa in January, and who gave himself the chance of a second success with an excellent 66 for 203.
Three players continued the chase on eight under par 205, English duo Gary Emerson and Anthony Wall along with Sweden’s Fredrik Henge, while Darren Clarke headlined a group of nine players on 206, the Ulsterman having stormed back into contention with a superb third round 65.
But as from day one when Montgomerie established the Fota Island course record of 63, the tournament focus was on the Scot who remained on course to continue his phenomenal record in the tournament.
Aside from his victories at Druids Glen in 1996 and 1997, Montgomerie has finished second twice, fourth twice and seventh once and showed again that even though the venue might have changed, his form remains the same.
Having started the day two shots ahead of the field, the seven-time Volvo Order of Merit winner made his intentions clear early in his round, birdieing the fourth, fifth and sixth holes to remind the chasing pack of exactly the task in hand.
Montgomerie gave the others a glimmer of hope with dropped shots at the seventh, tenth and 13th but his determination to stay in front resurfaced with birdies at the 12th and 14th and he nudged even further ahead of the field with a ten footer for his sixth birdie of the day at the 17th.
“I’m where I want to be and I’m very happy in this position,” he said. “There are some good players who had some good scores today and if they do the same tomorrow they can challenge.
“But it’s up to me, being three ahead, to concentrate on myself and do what I do, keep hitting the fairways and greens and putting the way I am doing. I’m putting reasonably well, I had 27 today which is good and if I do what I have to do, then we’ll see what happens.
“There is no bad time to be three ahead in a tournament of this quality. As I said earlier in the week, it is a very important month for me – four big tournaments and three coming up after this one so it’s very encouraging that I’m in this position.”
Second placed Scott could have been even closer to Montgomerie as he produced his best golf of the tournament on the way to a 66. Although he was delighted at the seven birdies yielded, the Australian did admit to some irritation at his two dropped shots of the day, at the par five tenth and 18th holes, ones he would normally expect to birdie.
On both holes, good drives had left him relatively simple approaches to the green from the light rough to the right of each fairway but on both occasions, with a seven iron at the tenth and an eight iron at the 18th, his ball flew into water hazards and he was unable to get up and down to save par.
“I’m a little more aggrieved with the 18th I think,” said Scott. “I’d put the tenth behind me but to finish with a birdie would have had me right in there with Monty for tomorrow so it is a little disappointing.
“But overall I’m pleased with my performance. I played brilliantly in spells out there and I could have had a few shots better so I’m happy and confident for tomorrow.
“When you see a name like Montgomerie at the top of a leaderboard it makes you want to play even better. To get the feeling of being able to chase such a great player like him down and hopefully finish in front of him is exciting and I was thriving on that out there.”
Of the three players who finished on eight under par 205, the best score was posted by Emerson, who carded a 67 while Henge shot 70 to Wall’s 71.
The 37 year old Englishman, whose best finish in a European Tour event came six years ago when he tied for fifth place in the Open de Canarias, had six birdies in total and admitted the success of his close friend Andrew Oldcorn who won the Volvo PGA Championship five weeks ago, had spurred him on.
“Ironically I think I was affected by his win at Wentworth almost as much as he was,” said Emerson. “It was an emotional week after the PGA and I lost my concentration because I was so excited for him.
“But his win has certainly given me a kick up the backside. We travel together, stay in the same hotels most weeks and we’re best friends really. When you see him winning you know you can do it too and I’ve had my chances.
“I led after three rounds of the English Open a few years ago and I am in a good position again, out in the second last group. I hope to learn from being there before and I just hope I can get off to a nice start and see what happens.”
Henge struggled with his swing and grafted for a 70 while Wall, who partnered Montgomerie, battled back from an uncertain start to birdie three of the last five holes for his 71 to keep him in the tournament.
“I’m pretty pleased because I showed a bit of character at the end there,” he said. “I did struggle a little bit early on with my new driver – which I got on Wednesday – I was just turning it over a little bit and it was spreading into the rest of my game.
“It’s the first time the driver has been tested under that sort of pressure but I really enjoyed it out there, there were so many people out there it was magnificent. I played with David Duval and Mark O’Meara at the Lancôme Trophy but there were probably two or three times as many people out there today.”
One shot behind, Darren Clarke kept alive the hopes of the huge home galleries of crowning the first Irish winner of the event since John O’Leary’s triumph at Portmarnock in 1982.
The 32 year old Ulsterman carded seven birdies in a flawless effort and admitted a change of fortune on the greens had been the key. “It was the same as I’ve played every other day to be honest but I holed a couple of putts today and didn’t make any mistakes which was a pleasant change,” he said.