A month ago, Neil Cheetham produced a gutsy performance in the final round of the Qualifying School Finals at San Roque, a superb closing 69 hoisting him up amongst the 39 players who gained their cards for The 2005 European Tour. The 37 year old Englishman showed the same determination, allied to not a little skill, at the Leopard Creek Golf Club in South Africa to move into the lead in the dunhill championship.
The former apprentice footballer with Sheffield Wednesday showed golfing prowess on the Gary Player-designed course at Mpumalanga, his third round 69 giving him an eight under par total of 208, one shot clear of South African veteran David Frost, who also posted a 69 for 209.
Starting the day in a tie for second place in the joint sanctioned event with the Sunshine Tour, Cheetham ensured he would stay in the upper echelons of the leaderboard with a controlled outward nine, his only departure from par being a birdie three at the 319 yard sixth hole.
His steadiness continued on the inward half where once again he was flawless, a fine approach to eight feet at the 15th setting up a birdie four before he finished in style; a crunching drive down the 541 yard 18th setting up an exquisite second shot which finished a mere five feet from the cup, from where he two-putted for birdie.
Second placed Frost is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of South Africa’s finest wine producers but he reminded his home followers that he was still tasty on the golf course too with a fine showing.
Level par for his round through 11 holes, the 45 year old showed the experience which has won him 22 titles around the world, including two on The European Tour, to move into contention over the closing stages.
Firstly he rolled a beautiful putt down the hill for a birdie two on the 12th and followed that with another raking putt from 25 feet for a birdie four at the 13th. Four par figures followed before, like Cheetham, he birdied the last, his four coming after he got up and down from the greenside bunker.
Chasing the two leaders were two of the tournaments younger stars, South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel, who moved into third place on six under par 210 after his third round 70, and England’s Oliver Whiteley who carded a 72 for 211.
Schwartzel, who graduated to The European Tour through the 2002 Qualifying School, produced a storming finish to his round, birdieing three of the last four holes to force himself into contention, while Whiteley also prospered on the inward half, figures of four under par 33 more than making up for his outward half figures of four over par 39.
One shot behind Whiteley were four players on four under par 212, Scotland’s Euan Little and the South African trio of Warren Abery, Michael Kirk and the heavily-backed pre-tournament favourite, Ernie Els.
Ironically, although they finished on the same score, Els and Kirk arrived at the four under par mark via vastly differing routes.
Kirk, who won the Stanbic Zambia Open on the 2004 Challenge Tour on his way to finishing in 27th place on the Rankings, had a rollercoaster day before eventually signing for a 69, his card featuring no less than seven birdies and four dropped shots.
Meanwhile Els, who slipped back after his second round 75, again suffered a frustrating afternoon on the Leopard Creek greens as his birdie putts steadfastly refused to drop on the back nine, carding seven straight pars from the 11th to the 17th.
But the World Number Three put that right in dramatic fashion on the 18th, firing his second shot to the fringe of the green and holing out for an eagle three and a third round 70, to not only make his dinner taste a little better, but also send a timely reminder to those players ahead of him on the leaderboard that he cannot be discounted over the final round.
Alongside the duo, Little recovered well from a double bogey at the second hole to post a level par 72, while Abery, who came through the Monday qualifying tournament, endured a sticky spell on the back nine before birdieing the final hole to get himself back into contention.
Overnight leader Peter Gustafsson could not produce the fireworks of his first two days and the winner of the Qualifying School Finals at San Roque had to settle for a 79, which moved him back into a share of 19th place on level par 216.