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Saturday, 17 March 2007

He might have had to endure a stuttering finish to his third round but Chapchai Nirat nevertheless remained firmly on course to become the third Thai golfer to win on The European Tour when he took a five shot lead into the final round of the TCL Classic at the Yalong Bay Golf Club on Hainan Island.

The 23 year old, who started the third round six shots clear of the field, ended the day five shots to the good with a four under par 68 for a 21 under par total of 195, still well clear of his nearest challengers, Japan’s Taichi Teshima and Miles Tunnicliff of England who stood alongside one another on 16 under par 200.

Although surpassing the lowest 54 hole score of the 2007 season – 20 under par 196 by Trevor Immelman in the South African Airways Open – Nirat had hoped to match, or indeed surpass, the Tour record 23 under par 193 mark for 54 holes, held jointly by Ernie Els (2003 Johnnie Walker Classic) and David Howell, in the TCL Classic 12 months ago.

For a while, it looked very much like the burly Thai – with the John Daly-like backswing and a similar penchant for cigarette smoking on the course – might do just that after his third round was ignited by a chip in birdie three at the eighth, after which his game truly came to life.

A birdie at the ninth was followed by two more from 15 and five feet respectively at the 11th and 12th before two crunching shots found the heart of the green at the par five 13th from where a two putt birdie four moved him to 23 under par for the tournament.

A three putt bogey at the 14th was negated by a further birdie at the 16th, leaving Nirat still on the 23 under par mark going into the final two holes – and with the record firmly in his sights.

However, perhaps showing a touch of nerves for the first time in the week, the Thai golfer – who set a course record 61 in the first round – gave hope to the chasing pack with bogey fives at each of the last two holes, both caused by pushed and wayward drives.

On the 17th, his powerful strike flew right into the water hazard while a similar line from the tee on the 18th almost found the adjacent tenth fairway. When his attempted recovery shot clipped the top of the trees, he was short of the green in two leaving a treacherous pitch over the bunker to a tight flag.

He did well with the shot from the deep and cloying rough but finishing 15 feet from the pin was about as good as he could have hoped for, from where he two putted for his second consecutive bogey five.

"I made a mistake on the last couple of holes," he admitted. "The wind was up and my driving let me down. However, I was thinking that shooting a 69 would be okay so I am happy with a 68. I think if I can reach 25 under par at the end of the final round, that should be good enough to win."

Despite the stutter, Nirat remains the strong favourite for the title with the two men most likely to mount a challenge being his closest pursuers Teshima and Tunnicliff.

Teshima, who came through The European Tour Qualifying School Final Stage at San Roque in November 2006, enjoyed a flawless third round 66 which featured three sets of back to back birdies, at the fourth and fifth, the eighth and ninth and the 13th and 14th.

The man, who lists his all time sporting idol as Michael Schumacher, will certainly need to speed off the grid in the style of the legendary German driver if he is to have any chance of catching Nirat in the final round. "I wasn't playing well coming into this week," he admitted. "But my short game is working out well - I've got up and down so many times."

Two time European Tour winner Tunnicliff is in the same boat although another 65 – to go with the ones he has now posted on both Friday and Saturday – would give the Englishman every chance.

Certainly too, if he can repeat the shot he enjoyed at the par five 16th – where he pitched in from 50 yards off the green for an eagle three to fire him up the leaderboard – then the possibility of him following up his victories in the 2002 Great North Open and the 2004 Diageo Championship at Gleneagles is strong.

"I played really solidly again today," he said. "I haven't been playing too well but the last two days I have found some form and started holing some putts. I've given myself a chance."

Continuing the pursuit of Nirat is Argentina’s Rafael Echenique in fourth on 15 under par 201 and Taipei’s Lu Wen-teh in fifth on 14 under par 202, while six players finished the day on 13 under par 203, including England’s James Heath, who celebrated his 24th birthday with a tidy third round 68.

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