Thomas Björn, Paul Casey and Anthony Wall will share the lead going into the final day of the Nissan Irish Open at Carton House Golf Club. The talented trio finished their respective third rounds on five under par 211 after an intriguing Saturday afternoon at the County Kildare venue, to lie one shot clear of the chasing pack.
Of the leading trio, the best round was posted by Björn, who holed a 40 foot putt for an eagle three on the 513 yard 18th for a flawless 67. Considering the Dane triple bogeyed the self same hole in the first round for a 78, his transition to the top of the leaderboard – via a course record equalling 66 in the second round – has been nothing short of remarkable.
“That is what we work hard for all the time to have days like yesterday and today,” said Björn, who also birdied the second, third and 15th holes. “When it starts coming together for two days in a row then you at least know that the track you are going down is the right one.
“I’ve said that for a while. I’ve changed my golf swing and I’m trying to do a few things and it is now slowly starting to come together. Today was even better than yesterday to be honest, it was very, very good.
“Yesterday I holed a lot of putts. Today I might have only holed one putt on the last but my game was good and it felt really special for me out there. It also leaves me in a very good position for tomorrow.”
Alongside Björn, Casey was also delighted for two reasons; firstly with an excellent round of golf which only featured one bogey in his 68, but secondly with the fact that it gives him the perfect opportunity to put right the disappointment of last week when he led going into the final round of the Quinn Direct British Masters only to finish in a tie for fifth.
“I struggled on the greens in the final round last week,” he admitted. “I had something like 33 or 34 putts which is way too many. And Michael (Campbell, his playing partner) struggled as well and when you get a group playing badly it is hard to turn the momentum the other way.
“But all that is in the past and I am looking forward to the challenge tomorrow. I always try to learn from things that have happened to me and I am happy to be right up there again. Hopefully it will work out for me this time.”
Certainly if Casey gets off to the type of start he enjoyed in the third round then he will be the man to catch. He rattled in birdie putts from three, 12 and 15 feet at the first, second and fourth holes, and very nearly was four under par after four as he saw his birdie effort on the third hang agonisingly on the lip.
The putter cooled a little bit for the Ryder Cup man in the middle portion of his round but further birdies at the 13th and the 18th – where he found the green in two and two putted from 35 feet – more than made up for his only bogey of the day which came after an errant drive on the 16th.
Another man who finished well on the demanding Colin Montgomerie-designed course was the third joint-leader Wall.
The Englishman, whose only European Tour win to date came in the 2000 Alfred Dunhill Championship in South Africa, seemed to have dropped out of contention when he reached the turn in one over par 37, but birdies at the 12th and 13th and at the last where he curled one in from 18 feet, saw him rise to the top with a 70.
“I actually haven’t made a particularly good start all week and I seem to have been over par for the front nine all the time,” he said. “But I’ve recovered on the back nine and it has been kind to me. So fingers crossed I can do that on the front nine tomorrow and also make the back nine pay too.
“I enjoy what I am doing now. I feel like I am playing better and I feel that my mental side has always been good. I felt like what let me down in the past was some bad technical problems coming down through my swing. So now I have no reason to fear any one.
“I give myself an excellent chance tomorrow because I feel good about my game and if I can hole a few putts, which is definitely the key round here, then who knows.”
While there is a three-way tie for the lead, there is also a three-way tie one shot behind on four under par 212, featuring England’s Ross Fisher, Sweden’s Peter Hedblom, and one of the crowd favourites Darren Clarke.
The Irishman admitted after Friday’s second round that he was finding it hard to get motivated for the game and, given his difficult personal circumstances away from the golf course, that is an entirely understandable emotion.
However, Clarke reminded everyone once again that, that aside, when he is on form, he is one of European golf’s top talents and he showed that by matching Björn’s 67. Indeed, had it not been for a momentary lapse in concentration when he missed a two foot putt on the final green for birdie, it would have been even better.
The reason for his concentration blip, he admitted, was a glance across the water adjacent to the 18th green to the giant video screen in the tented village which was showing the Heineken Cup Final between Munster and Biarritz.
The rugby might have cost the Ulsterman a closing birdie and a share of the lead but at least he was in time to join the thousands of revellers to take in the closing minutes of the Irish side’s memorable 23-19 triumph.
Although Saturday’s third round was played in excellent conditions, the weather has not been kind to the rest of the tournament and the elements have played a part in the movement of the tee times for Sunday’s final round.
Because of a weather front which is scheduled to move into the area on Sunday afternoon, tournament officials took the decision to move the tee times forward for the fourth round.
Tee times will now be between 7.30am and 9.20am – with play in three balls from two tees - with the tournament expected to finish, barring a play-off, around 2.30pm, instead of the original 6.15pm.