Four host nation players – Hendrik Buhrmann, Tim Clark, Titch Moore and Tjaart van der Walt – were flying high in the South African Airways Open, the quartet forming a logjam at the top of the leaderboard at the end of the third round at Durban Country Club.
All finished an enthralling day’s play on nine under par 207 with a share of pole position, after each one had a chance of claiming the lead outright. However, when the dust had settled, they all finished level, one shot clear of England’s Graeme Storm who posted a 69 for 208, and three ahead of a group of four players including Ryder Cup star David Howell, who fired himself right back into contention with a third round 67 for a six under par total of 210.
First man to set the clubhouse mark was Clark, the winner of the tournament the last time it was played at Durban Country Club in 2002, and who goes into the final round as the bookmakers’ favourite to pick up the first prize and a cheque for €112,689 (£79,000) in the joint-sanctioned event with the Sunshine Tour.
Clark did not drop a shot in his third round and although he admitted a tinge of disappointment at not having birdied any of the Durban course’s four par fives, it was tempered by the fact he pitched and putted for par on numerous occasions and holed putts of 20 and 30 feet respectively for birdies on the outward half.
“The last time I was in this position (going into the final round in 2002) I shot seven under to win so I am certainly going to be very confident tomorrow,” he said.
“My game plan hasn’t changed throughout the whole week. I am hitting off the tee what I want to hit depending on the wind and it is going to be the same tomorrow. All you have to do on this course is get in on the fairway and the guy who does that tomorrow is probably going to win.
“In the final round you can’t be too conservative because you have to figure that someone is going to have a good round. At worst I want to look at four under but I am really looking at somewhere between four and seven under.”
Next to join the leading group was, like Clark, another Durban resident, van der Walt, who did so with a third round 70, his elevation the most spectacular, coming, as it did, with an eagle two on the 274 yard 18th, holing from ten feet after a spectacular drive arrowed the centre of the green.
“I wasn’t born here but I live here now so I guess I am a local guy and it is important for me to have that support,” he said. “When I play overseas, everybody watches me on the internet and sends text messages and now they are actually with me so it lifts the spirits.”
The final two players to join the leading group – Buhrmann and Moore – played together in the last group and despite carding differing rounds of 70 and 72, the endings to their rounds proved to be very similar.
Both held a share of the lead on ten under par before both dropped a shot at the 16th, Buhrmann driving into the rough while Moore found a greenside bunker, and both missed birdie chances at the last, Buhrmann’s effort sliding past the cup from 20 feet while Moore missed from four feet.
“It is a big tournament to win so I wish that the wind will start blowing, I like the wind,” said Buhrmann. “But if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter, I am looking forward to it anyway. It will be a challenge, more a personal challenge perhaps than a golfing challenge.
“This week I have played very conservatively and it has paid off. It is the first time I have tried to play like that because I am an aggressive player and that has cost me in the past but I have really controlled myself this week and maybe that is why I am still here.”
Moore, who secured his European Tour card in the Qualifying School Finals at San Roque last November, started in the lead and was understandably frustrated not to finish the day there with his miss at the last.
“I just felt like I never really got it going today and the whole day was a battle to stay in contention,” said the 28 year old from Port Elizabeth. “I was frustrated to drop back twice on the back nine but it is anyone’s tournament now. However the good thing for me was that I felt more comfortable in that position than I had done in the previous days.”
Further down the leaderboard Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke, at 14th, the highest placed player on the Official World Golf Ranking at the start of the week, rediscovered some of his best form to post his best score of the week, a third round 67, for a three under par total of 213.
One of the stars of Europe’s sensational Ryder Cup victory over the United States at Oakland Hills Country Club last September, holed a monstrous putt for eagle two on the final green in the second round to make the cut right on the mark and went on to take advantage of his unexpected weekend activity.
After reaching the turn in level par 36, Clarke exploded on the back nine, notching six birdies in total, his only blemish coming when he missed the 17th green with his approach shot on his way to a bogey five.
“That was much better and, in fact, if I had holed a few more putts, especially on the outward half, it might have even been better than 67 but I am pleased with that and especially the inward half,” he said.
“I hadn’t really been playing that badly over the first two days but I just couldn’t get the ball in the hole but I just found something on the greens today in the latter half of my round. It was a pity to make bogey on the 17th from a position I really shouldn’t have but as I said, apart from that I’m pretty pleased.”