Fittingly, in a joint sanctioned tournament between The European Tour and the Sunshine Tour, the end of the third round of the South African Airways Open saw one representative from either side – Anders Hansen and Craig Lile, lead the way.
On a day when the testing winds saw Erinvale Golf Club truly bare its teeth, especially over the demanding final three holes, the Dane and the South African emerged the least scarred, Hansen carding a 68 for a nine under par total of 207 to be joined later on the same mark by Lile, who posted a 70.
England’s Steve Webster moved into third place one shot behind on eight under par 208 after a 67, while defending champion Trevor Immelman and Raphaël Jacquelin of France shared fourth on seven under par 209 after respective rounds of 69 and 70.
For Hansen, there was genuine surprise to be so prominent as it was the first time in two months that the Dane had seen grass, never mind played golf, after an extended winter break in his native land.
The 2002 Volvo PGA Champion wasted little time in reacquainting himself with the game however, a blistering start seeing him four under par for his round through five holes, the highlight being a 60 foot putt for eagle three at the third.
Further birdies followed at the 13th and 15th leaving the Dane favourite to lead outright before he became another victim of the treacherously difficult finishing three holes, nicknamed, “Amen End” by co-leader Lile.
Hansen’s hiccup came at the 594 yard 16th where he pushed his tee shot well right, the ball flying out of bounds to initiate a double bogey seven. In the circumstances, the Dane did well to notch par fours at both the 17th and 18th.
“Last year was a tough year for me,” he admitted. “After winning the Volvo PGA Championship in 2002 and having a great year, I didn’t play so great in 2003 and to be honest with you I was a bit fed up with it. So I decided to take some time off.”
The break, allied to a pep talk from an old friend back in Denmark helped Hansen recover his appetite for the game. “I have enjoyed this week which is great,” he said. “My scoring has been good and it has been a good start to the year for me.”
The final round will see Hansen partner Lile, a Cape Town born player but who now spends his time in America and who this year will concentrate his efforts on the Nationwide Tour in the United States.
The 16th hole also told on Lile, a snap hook drive paving the way for a double bogey six, but he too managed to hold his game together and grind out par fours at the 17th and 18th, having earlier notched four birdies in a row from the third on the less demanding front nine.
“The more times you get into a position like this, the easier it becomes,” he said. “Who knows what is going to happen tomorrow but the next time I get into this position it will be easier. Last year the first time I was in contention in a Sunshine Tour event I was very nervous but I actually remarked to the people I was travelling in the car with this morning that I had the best night’s sleep I’ve had in ages last night.
“Golf is golf whether you are playing a big tournament or a small tournament. I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow, I can’t control other people, but we will see what happens.”
Best round of the leading contenders was posted by Webster, who carded nine birdies in total in his 67 which left him at eight under par 208, a total which steadily crept up the leaderboarde as the afternoon drew to a close thanks to the travails of the final few holes.
Webster did not escape, carding a birdie at the 17th when he pulled his approach shot left of the green and did not get up and down, but the pain was eased slightly by his excellent birdie four at the previous hole.
“You are never safe round here until you get the last few holes out of the way, they are tough,” he said. “But everything is good right now, I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
By far the most knowledgeable person about the golf course is defending champion Immelman, who grew up in Somerset West and estimated before the tournament began that he had played the course over 200 times.
However, it is fair to say that in all those times, he might never have been as frustrated with his finish as he was in the third round, dropping out of a share of the lead with bogeys at each of the last three holes.
It slightly undid the good work of the previous 15 holes, which he had covered in excellent figures of six under par, but at only two shots behind and with the weight of the crowd’s hopes on his shoulders, he remained in a good position going into the final afternoon.
“If I can be two behind going into every final round this season it is going to be a fantastic year,” said Immelman. “It is my first week of the year. I am going to make a few mistakes but hopefully I am not going to make them tomorrow.
“As for plans for the final day, you have really got to see what the weather is doing. It could be horrendous or it could be nice. But to win is my game plan, not to beat about the bush there. I really want to come out and play well like I did today and try and win the tournament.”
Immelman was joined on seven under par by Frenchman Jacquelin, who kept alive his hopes of a maiden European Tour victory with a 70, although he too did not escape unscathed from the final three holes, his bogey coming at the 17th.