Australian Brett Rumford remained on course for his first European Tour title and a valuable 18 month exemption after extending his lead in the Aa Saint-Omer Open to three shots going into the final round.
The 25 year old from Perth, who has held the lead since setting a new course record of 64 at St Omer on the first day, shot a 68, three under par, to move to 202, 11 under par, and clear of Garry Houston of Wales and England’s Ben Mason.
Rumford looked set to make a big impression on The European Tour when he turned professional in 2000, the year after winning the ANZ Championship as an amateur, and finished his rookie season a highly creditable 57th in the Volvo Order of Merit. But a year later his lost his card and his bid to win back a place among the game’s elite at the Qualifying School last November fell short by a single stroke.
Tomorrow he can put that right and also erase the memory of the 2001 Ericsson Masters at Huntingdale, Melbourne, where he led by three going into the final round only to be overhauled by Colin Montgomerie.
As a dual ranking event, where money won counts for both the Volvo Order of Merit and the Challenge Tour Rankings, the Aa St Omer Open carries a valuable one year exemption with the winner earning full playing privileges on The European Tour International Schedule until the end of 2004.
A further incentive for Rumford to earn his card is his wish to be best man at his brother Mitch’s wedding which clashes with the Qualifying School in November.
Rumford set about extending his one stroke overnight lead from the outset, birdieing the opening hole to move to nine under par. Further birdies at the seventh and ninth took him out in 33 and four strokes clear of the field, a lead extended to five when he holed a 12 foot birdie putt on the tricky 12th green.
Houston and Mason both picked up a shot at the short 17th to close the gap to four and a few moments later the lead was down to three when Rumford made his only mistake of the round, three putting the same hole.
“The three putt on the 17th was the only blemish of the day,” said Rumford. “I hit a great shot to the ten feet at the last which I would have been very pleased to hole but it stayed out. Still I’m quite happy with the day. I would have liked to be two or three further ahead but just focus on tomorrow’s round. It is the final round, just keep playing how I have been playing and see how I go.”
Mason, a former England International who won his European Tour card at the fourth time of asking at the Qualifying School last November, emerged as Rumford’s closest challenger after picking up six birdies with just the one dropped shot on his way to a five under par 66 and 54 hole total of eight under par 205.
Since turning professional in 1999 Mason has made steady progress, finishing his first Challenge Tour season in 2001 in 87th place before climbing to 24th last year. This season he is lying 172nd in the Volvo Order of Merit, his best finish to date being tied 16th in the Algarve Open de Portugal.
“Pleased with it. Saturday is always a nice day to play well,” he said. “It’s been a learning season. It’s been good and will stand me in good stead. Every single year I have played golf its been a natural progression. I have just got better and better each year I have played as I have learned my trade.
“Tomorrow I’ll just go out there and try and enjoy myself. It is the first time I have played in the last group of a European Tour event. Just go and enjoy myself and see what comes.”
Houston, the 1995 Welsh Amateur Champion, joined Mason on eight under par, after a third round of 68, three under par in which he only dropped one shot.
“It’s been a while since I was contending for the lead so it is exciting to be up there” he said. “I feel I am playing better than ever and thinking properly on the golf course so I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
The Swedish pair of Mattias Eliasson and Peter Hanson lie three shots further back on five under alongside Italy’s Federico Bisazza.