Ernie Els, Volvo Order of Merit winner in 2003 and Open Champion in 2002, will lead the European Tour challenge into the final round of the 133rd Open Golf Championship at Royal Troon. The South African carded a third round 68 for a seven under par total of 206 to sit one shot behind surprise leader, American Todd Hamilton.
Hopes of handing the famous Claret Jug to a European Tour Member remained high as Els was joined by four others – Retief Goosen, Barry Lane, Thomas Levet and Colin Montgomerie - in the top 11 at the end of an enthralling Saturday on the famous old Ayrshire links where the fluctuating weather conditions matched the rollercoaster scoring of most of the main protagonists.
One who fitted that bill was Els who saw bogeys at the eighth and 11th negate the good work of birdies at the first and sixth. But the positive aspect for the South African was the way he finished his round.
A birdie at the 13th was followed by an 18 footer for birdie at the 15th before he added another birdie at the long 16th, his 40 foot putt for eagle finishing agonisingly over the cup. Two pars saw Els finish his round, although he had to pitch and putt at the last following a pushed drive into the right rough.
“I played well coming in,” he said. “I made a few mistakes around the turn but all that is behind me and I am right in there and that is all you can ask at this stage.
“Going into the final round you need to be patient, have confidence and have staying power because you know that not everything is going to go your way. The course gives and it takes so you just have to hit your shots and try your best.”
One shot behind Els in a tie for third place on six under par 207 is an impressive threesome featuring US Open Champion Retief Goosen, last week’s Barclays Scottish Open winner Thomas Levet, and Masters Tournament Champion Phil Mickelson.
Mickelson and Goosen fared best with matching 68s, the South African departing from his usual consistency with six birdies and three bogeys in his round, while Mickelson completed another flawless round, the last shot shed by the left handed American being at the 17th in Thursday’s first round.
Sharing the position with them, Levet, who started the day in second place, looked to be heading for the top on his own when he produced a superb outward half of 33 to storm to the head of affairs on nine under par.
However, the Frenchman came unstuck on the 490 yard 11th, the hardest hole on the golf course, where he missed the green to the left with his approach, was too strong with his pitch shot, and three putted for a double bogey six.
It said much for the mental strength of the three time winner on The European Tour International Schedule that he managed to hold his game together on the difficult closing stretch and only dropped one other shot to par, on the par five 16th after sending his third shot into a greenside bunker, and he closed with two pars for a 71.
“I am a little bit tired because we played so late in the afternoon that it was difficult to keep my concentration going at times on the back nine,” he said. “But I was happy with the way I played generally from tee to green, apart from the 11th of course.
“You cannot expect to hit every shot perfectly so you just have to try and stay patient. On the last day there will only be one winner but it is not like Loch Lomond, you cannot go out chasing birdies, you have to try and miss the bunkers, find the greens and hope that your putter is hot.”
One shot behind the trio in sole possession of sixth place is England’s Barry Lane but, like Levet, the winner of The Daily Telegraph Damovo British Masters might have finished a little higher up the leaderboard had it not been for a wayward finish.
Three birdies in four holes from the 12th propelled the 44 year old into a share of the lead but his run was halted at the short 17th where a pulled tee shot left him in an impossible position to the left of the green. He did well to extricate the ball but could only send it over the other side of the green from where he took three more to get down.
Still smarting a little, the Englishman pulled his second shot into the greenside bunker at the last and although he did well to escape from the notoriously difficult sand traps, his resulting 15 foot par effort stayed above ground and he had to settle for a level par 71 and a five under par total of 208.
Two time champion Tiger Woods and fellow American Scott Verplank share seventh place on nine under par after respective rounds of 68 before the final European Tour Member in the top 11, Colin Montgomerie, features in a tie for ninth with the 2003 Masters Tournament Champion Mike Weir (71) and overnight leader Skip Kendall, who fell back with a 75.
Montgomerie, cheered every step of the way by the patriotic Scottish galleries, tried hard but, after reaching the turn in level par 36, could not find the key to unlock any birdies on the inward half.
Indeed, the seven time Volvo Order of Merit winner did extraordinarily well on numerous occasions merely to save par, none more so than at the 14th where he somehow managed to extricate his ball from a seemingly impossible lie under the lip of a greenside bunker, to six feet, from where he holed out.
However, the good run finally came to an end at the last where he missed the green to the right with his approach, pitched to four feet, but missed the par effort, seeing him have to settle for a 72 and a three under par total of 210.
“I had some scrambles on the back nine but I managed to get it round,” he said. “I am five behind, but in 1997 (the last time the Open was at Royal Troon) Justin Leonard started the final round five behind and he won.
“So we have to stay positive. I have to get off to a good start, try and be two or three under in the early stages, hang on round the turn and then see what happens. With the crowd behind me, like they were today, who knows?”
The one man everyone has to catch, however, is American Todd Hamilton, a long time competitor on the Asian Tour but who gained his card for the US PGA Tour through the qualifying school last November and who made full use of his playing privileges with victory in Honda Classic in Florida in March.
Now the 38 year old – who started the week as a 500/1 outsider with the bookmakers - stands on the verge of what would be a remarkable triumph and similar in the realm of surprise to the one Ben Curtis achieved last year at Royal St George’s.
Hamilton booked his place at the top of the leaderboard with a superb and flawless 67, his birdies coming at the fourth, sixth, eighth and 14th hole, the latter courtesy of a superb tee shot which showed he had mastered the art of links golf, his ball rolling in on the contours of the green to within eight feet of the pin.
“Right now this is a great feeling,” he said. “I have played golf all over the world but I would love nothing better than to have a great finish here tomorrow.”