It might not be quite as commanding as the nine shot lead he took into the final round of this year’s Johnnie Walker Classic in Australia, but Ernie Els had every reason to be delighted with the five stroke cushion he opened up after the third round of The Barclays Scottish Open at Loch Lomond.
Having started the day four strokes ahead of the field, a commanding 67 from the reigning Open Golf Champion moved him to 15 under par 198, with his nearest challengers on ten under par 203 being Ryder Cup team-mates Darren Clarke and Phillip Price, winner of last week’s Smurfit European Open.
Clarke enjoyed a superb day on the Bonnie Banks, keeping a bogey off his card and managing seven birdies elsewhere in a wonderful 64 while kept Price alive his hopes of becoming the first player since Vijay Singh in 2001 to win back-to-back events on The European Tour International Schedule with a solid 68.
But Els remains the man they all have to beat and if he manages to record his third consecutive 67 in the final round, to go with his opening 64, he will be virtually unassailable.
Once again the 33 year old South African tamed the difficult closing stretch on the Loch Lomond course, driving the green at the 345 yard 14th for a birdie three before quickly adding another at the 15th. An overhit six iron approach at the 16th cost Els his only bogey of the day but he recovered superbly and finished in style, firing a wedge to five feet and holing out for birdie three at the 18th.
“I want to go out tomorrow and play like the way I have been playing,” said Els. “I saw a few of the flags for tomorrow and they look quite tough so it’s going to be difficult to shoot very low which will maybe make it a little bit easier for me.
“But I’ve still got to go out and play my game the way I’ve been playing and make some more putts. But it is a bit of an awkward situation because it is not like you are getting on every tee and ripping it down the fairway. There is a lot of thinking going on and I will have to be patient and stick to my guns.”
Partnering Els tomorrow will be Clarke, whose 64 represented his best round of the week and gave him the belief that he could overhaul the South Africa, a viewpoint enunciated by the leader.
“Darren is very capable of shooting low scores,” said Els. “He has proved that in the past and is obviously going to out there and try to fire on all cylinders. It’ll be fun. I played with him in the first two days and he looked like he was striking the ball well.”
For his part Clarke admitted it will have to be more of the same from him in the final round if he is to turn things around. “It was good to shoot a low number again and I am hitting a lot of very solid putts so I have a chance,” he said. “It’s possible.”
Like Els, Clarke saved best for last and carded birdies at exactly the same holes as the leader, the 14th, 15th and 18th, although his putt on the home green was more impressive, dropping into the cup from 15 feet away.
Alongside Clarke, Welshman Price admitted he had had second thoughts about competing after his exertions in Ireland, but was now convinced he had made the right decision.
“I felt very tired on Tuesday but I spoke to my wife and she wanted me to come,” said Price who, like Els, only dropped one shot all day and who more than made up for it with four other birdies elsewhere.
“Five shots is a lot behind, the way Ernie is playing but you never know. If I get off to a good start and maybe harass him a little, it might not be so easy for him. One thing is for sure though, I will need the putter to be working red hot.”
In the penultimate grouping Price will partner Australia’s Peter O’Malley who stormed through the field with a stunning nine under par 62 which raised the 38 year old from a share of 44th place at the start of the day, to fourth place on eight under par 205.
The score equalled the course record set by Retief Goosen in 1997 but will not appear in the record books as a result of the preferred lies in operation. But that fact was not a concern for O’Malley.
“I just had to get myself back into the tournament and I’ve done that,” said the winner of three titles on The European Tour International Schedule. “I am very much of a confidence player and if things go well with my hitting and my putting, I ride on that wave and that is what happened today.”
Common belief is that the winner will come from the leading four players but the two player sharing fifth place on seven under par 206, Australia’s Peter Lonard and Ian Poulter of England, might have something to say about that and will be ready to pounce if any of the men ahead of them slip up.
Both men carded 68s with Lonard flawless while Poulter recovered from dropping a shot at the opening hole to card four birdies in the next six holes.