World Number Three Ernie Els heads a star-studded leaderboard packed with some of the biggest names in golf as he takes a two stroke advantage into the final round of World Golf Championships – American Express Championship at Mount Juliet Conrad in Ireland.
Els shot a third round 68 to move to 15 under par 201, two clear of Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn. Open Champion Todd Hamilton lies a further shot back alongside two of Europe’s Ryder Cup heroes – David Howell and home favourite Padraig Harrington. US Open Champion Retief Goosen is on 11 under par while another of Europe’s victorious Ryder Cup Team, Sergio Garcia is only five shots adrift on ten under par after a round of 67.
The quality of the leaderboard continues with two more of Europe’s Ryder Cup Team in Darren Clarke, whose seven under par 65 represented the best round of the day, Lee Westwood and World Number Two and defending champion Tiger Woods, along with fellow American Zach Johnson all in the top ten at eight under par.
The quality of the leaderboard was not lost on Bjorn, who will go out in the last group with his close friend Els and Howell. “You’ve got some great players on that leaderboard, and they consistently win golf tournaments. You’ve got Major Champions, a long line of them, and you’ve got Padraig, who is probably our best player here in Europe, you’ve got David Howell with good success in The Ryder Cup and Sergio. I have no illusions about who’s around me, great players, and he guy that goes out and plays the absolute best golf tomorrow wins the tournament.”
Top of that list is Els, looking for his first WGC title after the disappointment of coming so close in all four of this season’s Major Championships. Five birdies with just the one dropped shot gave him a four under par 68 and puts him in the driving seat for the final round.
“I've got to be happy with the score that I shot,” said Els, the current leader of the Volvo Order of Merit. “I was a little off here and there, but I got the ball up and down when I needed to. I saw the guys start off quite fast, Thomas making quite a fast start and some of the other guys, such as Padraig up there.
“I just needed to concentrate on my game, which I did. Obviously not as good as yesterday, but I played okay. I grinded out a good score and I can take that into tomorrow, if tomorrow happens
“I'm in good position. I'm happy with where I am. I worked hard to get to where I am, so I've got a two-shot lead and it's good to be in that position again.”
For Bjorn, this week marks a huge step in his recovery from a time when he walked off the course on his last trip to Ireland in the Smurfit European Open as he struggled to come to terms with inner demons. Now he has turned the corner and back where he belongs, amongst the world’s leading players.
“It's been a good week so far,” said the Dane, who has not had a top ten finish since February. “But I also know that I have a very big day ahead of me tomorrow. I look at the leaderboard, these are guys that are there every week, and it's been a long time since I've been there. There was a moment in time when I was there every week, but it's been a while.
“I'm very well aware that tomorrow is a big day for me, but nobody can take away the first three days from me, and my golf is certainly going in my direction at the moment. I'm going to go out and try and enjoy this tomorrow, because when you go through a hard time, this is where you want to be. This is all you're thinking about, "When am I ever going to get back in this situation." Now I am back in that situation, now it's a question of enjoying it, because this is what I've been working so hard to get back to, and just go out and try and enjoy tomorrow and see what the day brings.”
Ireland’s own Harrington will receive plenty of home support tomorrow when he goes out in the penultimate group looking for his first victory on home soil. A six under par 66 puts him amongst the leading challengers on 12 under par.
“I've had some great support,” said the World Number Eight. “Thankfully I started the right way, birdied three of the first five holes, and the people who came out to watch me stayed with me then. It gave some momentum to that crowd. It was a good day for me, a really good atmosphere, not just clapping, but cheering from greens to tees, so there was some really, really good moments out there.
“It's obviously a very big deal, a World Championship event, a Tour event in Ireland. It's a big deal for me if I could go on and win it. But to be honest, I have to leave all those things until after it's finished. I just have to focus on what I'm doing, not think about the result at all, just focus on the job at hand, do my own thing, and nobody wants to give Ernie a couple of shots' lead going into any round.
“There's a lot of hard work ahead. The odds would be stacked against me, but it's a question of doing my own thing and not getting excited about it and not thinking about the result.”
Howell matched Harrington’s 66 to also lie on 12 under par 204 as he eyes his first title since the Dubai Desert Classic in 1999, his confidence boosted by his debut in the Ryder Cup a fortnight ago.
“Playing in a big event and doing well, it doesn't make you a better player overnight. It doesn't guarantee you're going to play well, but it's more experience in the memory bank for certain situations.
“I played very nicely, drove the ball very well until the last really. It was just a really solid round of golf. I'm delighted really. I played well the first couple of days and just didn't score as well as I could have, which has been a nice change because in recent months I've played well and haven't scored as well as I could. I stayed patient and played well today.”
The weather forecast for the final round is for storms, the tail end of Hurricane Jeanne expected to hit Ireland tomorrow, so play is starting at 8.15 am in three balls off both the tenth and first tees to counter any adverse weather.