Sergio Garcia will fly the flag for Spain and for The European Tour when he leads the field into the final round of The 136th Open Championship at Carnoustie.
The 27 year old’s performance, along with his spectacular orange and red attire, lit up a grey Saturday on the Scottish links and gave genuine hope of a European Tour Member triumphing in The Open Championship for the first time since Ernie Els at Muirfield in 2002 and indeed becoming the first European born player to win any Major Championship since Scotland’s Paul Lawrie won The Open at Carnoustie itself eight years ago.
Garcia carded a flawless third round 68 for a nine under par total of 204 and a three shot lead over American Steve Stricker who set a new low mark for Open Championships at Carnoustie with a superb 64 for a six under par total of 207.
Although the sheer nature of links golf dictates that it should not be classed as simply a two horse race for the title, the leading duo have opened up a considerable gap on the rest of the field.
A group of seven players ended their three rounds on three under par 210, three shots adrift of Stricker but a whopping six shots adrift of Garcia. Amongst their number are European Tour Members Paul Broadhurst, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley who, incredibly, all shot 68 to move alongside the American duo of Chris DiMarco and Stewart Cink and Korea’s KJ Choi.
The European Tour interest continued amongst the players tied for tenth on two under par 211 with Spain’s Miguel Angel Jiménez, Argentina’s Andres Romero and Vijay Singh of Fiji on that mark, while World Number One Tiger Woods, looking for his third successive victory, has a lot to do, starting the final round on one under par 212, eight shots adrift off the pace.
While all the above players will fancy their chances, the man everyone has to catch is Garcia but if the Spaniard, a stalwart of Europe’s last three Ryder Cup victories, repeats the form he showed in the third round, he will be a hard man to topple.
If he was suffering any nerves, the eight time winner on The European Tour International Schedule banished them immediately with a birdie at the first hole and he was steadiness personified from then on, his only other departures from par coming with further birdies at the eighth and the 11th.
Coming down the notoriously difficult final stretch, he did get into bother at the 461 yard 17th where his wayward approach shot struck a spectator. But showing recovery skills the great Seve Ballesteros – who announced his retirement from golf on Monday – would have proud of, he produced an exquisite pitch to three feet to save par.
Indeed, his lead could have been even greater if he had been able to take advantage of a superb approach shot at the last which left him an eight foot putt for a closing birdie three, but his effort slipped past the edge of the hole. However, the Spaniard admitted he was more than pleased with his day’s efforts.
“It feels good to be in this position,” he said. “You have got to hand it to Steve Stricker for having that round today but as far as I’m concerned, it feels good to see the way I played.
“I am really looking forward to tomorrow. It is going to be a hard day but hopefully one to remember, I can’t wait for it to start.”
Second placed Stricker had a day to remember, setting a new course record for Open Championships at Carnoustie with a stunning seven under par 64. The previous best in at Open Championship at the Angus links was the 65 carded by Jack Newton in the third round in 1975.
Outside the Open Championship, Stricker matched the course record 64s carded by Colin Montgomerie in The European Tour’s Scottish Open in 1995 and that of Alan Tait in the Scottish PGA’s Daily Express Championship in 1994.
In total the 40 year old American carded seven birdies and no dropped shots, five of his birdies coming in the first seven holes, and in his first Open Championship since 2002, he seems certain to beat his previous best finish which came when he tied 22nd at Royal Lytham in 1996.
“It was just one of those rounds when everything went right and my putter felt really well,” he said. “I’ve been spending a lot of time working on my putting and I gave myself a lot of opportunities today and taking a few, which I haven’t been doing.
“It was quite a day and it was quite an experience out there. It was a lot of fun and it gives me a chance going into tomorrow.
Of the chasing group on three under par, the most remarkable round of the day was undoubtedly posted by Els, looking to claim his fourth Major title to add to his Open triumph of five years ago and his two US Open wins of 1994 and 1997.
The World Number Four had six birdies in an excellent round but his hopes of a 65 soon became a 68 in reality thanks to a triple bogey eight at the sixth.
“I don’t know really how I did that,” said Els. “I just lipped out for birdie on the seventh and then when I got to the eighth, it started raining, I made a terrible swing and just played a bad hole.
“I think everybody chasing is hoping for wind tomorrow, otherwise Sergio is looking so solid that it seems like he’s not making any mistakes. It is in his hands but there are a lot of guys chasing and it is a Major so there is a lot that can happen. But Sergio is in a great position.”
McGinley admitted he could not wait for Sunday’s action to begin. “The British Open for me is the greatest golf tournament in the world. To be in contention is a positive dream and going out in one of the last groups is what you play for and I’m looking forward to it.”
Fellow countryman Harrington had a novel approach for hunting down Garcia. “Maybe the two of us (McGinley) could play better ball against Sergio – we might catch him that way!”
Broadhurst admitted he was already delighted with his showing. “I will go out and try and shoot a low score tomorrow – another 68, I’d be delighted with that. I’ve had a good week and if that isn’t enough then other guys have played better than me. Minimum for me is to finish high enough up so I can get back for Birkdale next year but if I can do better than that, it would be great.”