Long-time leader Thomas Björn was briefly caught and overtaken in the third round of the Johnnie Walker Classic before ultimately reclaiming a one stroke advantage going into the last day at Alpine Golf and Sports Club, Bangkok, Thailand.
The Danish Ryder Cup player threatened to melt in the harsh humidity but signed for a two under par 70 and a 14 under par total of 202, securing the narrowest of leads over Spain’s Miguel Angel Jiménez, who signed for a round of 67 and total of 203.
However the battle for the title promises to intensify over the closing 18 holes with a leaderboard as congested as the unremitting Bangkok traffic. No fewer than 19 players are lying within five strokes of the lead. Australian Richard Green (67) and Thailand-based Scot, Simon Yates (68) are tied for third on 204 with England’s Ian Poulter in a group a further stroke behind after a 67.
Lurking just inside double figures on ten under par are eight players including defending champion, Ernie Els of South Africa, and young Australian, Adam Scott, while Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie also shot a 67 to stay in the hunt on 207.
Björn admitted that the combination of the humidity, which drenched the players’ clothes, and leading from early on the first day was taking a heavy toll on his concentration, but with three birdies and just one bogey he managed to stay ahead.
“I’ve got to be satisfied to be leading the tournament. It was tough day – probably the hottest I’ve ever been on a golf course” said Björn, who birdied five of the first seven holes on Thursday and remained in front until Jiménez birdied the 14th. However a bogey at the next restored the Dane’s advantage.
Björn added: “It’s tough when you come out after eight weeks and all of a sudden find yourself in this situation. You hope to be there but might not expect it. I was five under par for the first seven holes on day one and have been leading the tournament pretty much ever since.
“That takes a little bit extra out of you. The heat just makes it a little bit difficult but I’m happy with the way I’m performing. I need a good rest tonight, that’s for sure, and then I’ll be ready for tomorrow.”
Jiménez, who returned to winning form last October in Majorca, fired a third round 67 to add to his second round 66 and the Spanish Ryder Cup player has a chance of making the pony-tail an extremely popular extension to the golfer’s armoury after last week’s success for German Marcel Siem, who sports a similar hairstyle.
A seven-time winner on The European Tour, Jiménez celebrated his 40th birthday earlier this month. Now he is hoping to celebrate another victory, but admitted: “You can’t think about targets. It’s about today and tomorrow and then next week and if things go well, the big targets take care of themselves.
“My plan tomorrow is that I nust give all I have, to play well and let things happen. You cannot do anything more. Of course I would like to get back into the Ryder Cup Team but time will tell the answer.”
Meanwhile 33 year old Yates, who came to Thailand on holiday in 1993 and stayed, has earned around $700,000 playing on the Asian circuit, but victory in the Johnnie Walker Classic would enable him to take up European Tour Membership.
Yates, who played with Jiménez and scored a 68 to the Spaniard’s 67, conceded it would be comforting to have that option but added: “That would be nice but let’s take one thing at a time and see how it turns out. It would be great if I could. I would certainly play in European Tour events – but not in a cold country.” Quite an irony, as Yates is a former Scottish international skier who dislikes the cold weather intensely!
Left hander Green, winner of the Dubai Desert Classic almost seven years ago, believes he could add a second title – if only he could make more fast starts. He said: “It seems to take time for me to get going while the other guys are fast out of the blocks. But I’ve changed my caddie and equipment and things are improving.”