Darren Clarke and Colin Montgomerie will embark on a breakfast-time mission to capture the World Golf Championships-NEC Invitational at Firestone Country Club as the tournament faces a race against time to beat the weather.
Due to a severe weather warning, officials have decided to bring the start of play forward by three and a half hours, with a two tee start, in a bid to finish before heavy thunderstorms lash the Akron area. Given acceptable conditions, the event will finish before the locals have sat down for Sunday lunch.
That means an early start for the leading European players in the field, who go into the final day with a substantial deficit to close on Jim Furyk, who closed with a hat-trick of birdies to establish himself as the 54-hole leader.
Furyk shot a 66 for a three round total of 197, 13 under par, and a two stroke lead over Tiger Woods, who also carded a 66 for 199. Clarke heads the European challenge on 202 after a round of 68 while Montgomerie enjoyed an error-free day in a 66 for 203.
Clarke smiled ruefully after completing the 68 which kept him in contention for his second World Golf Championships title. He said: “My position going into Sunday is very flattering considering how I’ve hit the ball. I’m eight under but I feel I should be eight over!
“My short game has saved me. Some of my up and downs have been phenomenal. Seve would have been proud of them. I ground it out all day and there was a mixture of horrific shots and some really good ones.”
Montgomerie lies a stroke behind Clarke after his second 66 of the week, a second round 71 proving destructive in his bid to win a title on American soil for the first time. He said: “I played well today. I hit all but one fairway and that helps. If I do that I will usually score pretty good.
“I didn’t drive well during that 71 and you know that the standard over here is very, very high and you’ve got to put four good scores together. You can’t really afford an over-par score. Especially around a course which is giving up birdies because of the soft greens.”
Woods, attempting to capture the title for the third year in succession, opened with a pair of birdies and moved into the outright lead with another brace at the ninth and tenth. It began to look as if Woods was ready to grab the event by the scruff of the neck when he got up and down from a bunker for another birdie at the 16th, but Furyk had other ideas.
He birdied the 12th and 14th then finished with a flourish of three successive birdies for a two stroke lead going into his morning matinee in the fourth round.
Bernhard Langer appeared set to muscle his way into contention when he birdied four holes in a row from the eighth but a double bogey at the 13th and further dropped shots at the 15th and 16th halted his momentum. It was typical of Langer that he somehow prised two late birdies out of the course – from 40 feet at the 17th and eight feet at the last – for a round of 68 and total of 204.
He lamented: “I really had it going after birdieing four holes in a row. Then I cut my tee shot at the 13th and had a horrible lie. The ball was also damaged and I didn’t make the green. I ended up three putting for a double bogey and I lost my rhythm and hit some wayward shots.”
There were some sound displays by European Tour Members at Firestone on the warmest day of the week, when the above ground temperatures were matched by the hot quality of the golf on show.
South Africa’s Retief Goosen, the US Open champion, produced the low round of the day, a six under par 64, after making the most impressive start of the week. Goosen holed his second shot at the opening hole and birdied the next three to move from one over par to four under.
Two bogeys on the back nine stopped him in his tracks but he birdied the 16th and 18th to finish the day on a five under par total of 205.
Pierre Fulke of Sweden, who will make his Ryder Cup debut next month, showed a welcome return to form by shooting a 65 to move into the top 20. Another Ryder Cup rookie from Sweden, Niclas Fasth, also performed well with a round of 69.
Ian Poulter, attempting to join the Swedes in the European team, returned a one under par 69 to finish on 208.