Spurred on by England’s famous victory over Australia in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final in France, Nick Dougherty surged into a three shot lead after the third round of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews.
The 25 year old Englishman got the news of the remarkable 12-10 success as he stood on the tee at the notoriously difficult Road Hole 17th on the Old Course and the fillip was immediate, Dougherty crunching a fine drive down the centre of the fairway and a nine iron to 15 feet before rolling home the birdie putt.
It helped the winner of the 2005 Singapore Masters to a flawless third round 66 for a 17 under par total of 199 and a three shot lead over Australian Peter O’Malley, who carded a 69 at the Old Course, and who was, not surprisingly, not quite as thrilled as the news filtered through from Marseilles.
An enthralling final round seems in prospect when one glances at the quality of the chasing pack only one shot adrift of O’Malley in a share of third place; inaugural Alfred Dunhill Links Championship winner and Scottish crowd favourite Paul Lawrie, reigning Open champion Padraig Harrington of Ireland and the English duo of Justin Rose and Steve Webster.
Three time Major winner Ernie Els is only one shot further behind in a share of seventh place with Niclas Fasth on 12 under par 204 but the man they will all have to catch is Dougherty who once again has a chance to notch his second European Tour victory having gone close on numerous occasions this season.
His best chances unquestionably came in Singapore in March and in Italy in May when on both occasions he held the lead approaching the final stages of the last round before mistakes handed the respective titles to Liang Wen-chong and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano. But Dougherty admitted he felt the time had come to put that particular record straight.
“I feel very relaxed and I don’t feel particularly stressed by the situation that I’m now in front,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m hung up as much as I was in the past if I don’t go ahead and win tomorrow. I am a tournament winner on The European Tour and I like to think I’m one of the best players on The European Tour.
“I expect to compete every week and I expect to win golf tournaments but golf is not that easy and sometimes you are going to screw up and sometimes it is not going to go your way. But tomorrow I am going to go out there to shoot a great score and I do that, then it’s going to be hard to catch me.”
Certainly if Dougherty repeats the form he showed in the third round over the Old Course, he will be virtually impossible to stop for, aside from the superb birdie on the 17th, he also notched five birdies in eight holes from the fourth to impress both the crowds and his playing partner, R&A Chief Executive Peter Dawson.
As well as leading the professional event, Dougherty and Dawson also qualified in the top 20 amateur teams who will compete in the final round of the amateur contest, a fact which gave a certain degree of mischievous delight to the young Englishman.
“I’m very pleased that we are going to get the chance to walk up the 18th together in the final group and that Peter will get the chance to see how it feels for us guys having to do that rather than having the luxury of watching it through binoculars from his office window!” he said.
Second placed O’Malley played the Old Course the ‘wrong’ way round, starting at the tenth but did not enjoy the same good fortune at the 17th where a trip into the dreaded Road Hole bunker cost the 42 year old Australian a double bogey six.
But a birdie at the 18th and three more on the inward half made the three time European Tour winner’s dinner taste a little better. “Apart from the 17th today, I’m not really making any mistakes,” said O’Malley. “I’m driving the ball well, hitting lots of greens and I’ve putted well.
“I’ve had a very solid year with several top ten finishes. The weeks I’ve done well I’ve come out and shot six, seven or eight under par on the weekend and in Ireland, for example, I shot seven under par alone on the Saturday. The swing feels good at the moment and obviously if I was to win here it might push me up towards the top 20 of the Order of Merit which would be fantastic.”
Three members of the group on 13 under par 203 – Harrington (67), Rose (66) and Webster (68) – compiled their third rounds at Kingsbarns but they were overshadowed by the fourth member of the group – Lawrie – who once again proved his love affair with Carnoustie – the course where he won the Open Championship in 1999, by equalling the course record eight under par 64.
The scintillating effort actually featured nine birdies in total which would have been a new low mark but for the 38 year old Scot’s solitary bogey on the second hole where his drive found a fairway bunker. But, not surprisingly, such trifling matters did little to dampen Lawrie’s enthusiasm in his quest for his sixth European Tour title.
“It is just a proper golf course,” said Lawrie. “The greens are so pure here and I have been stroking it so well. I struggled a little bit at Kingsbarns yesterday because the greens are not as good as here but as soon as I get here, I just roll the ball perfectly.
“There is no gimmickery about the course here. You have to play well to score well and I did that today. Nothing is hidden here, it is right in front of you. I love it.”
As well as the top 60 professionals, the top 20 teams in the amateur competition will also contest the final round and leading the way in that are two teams on 27 under par; Niclas Fasth and his amateur partner, Swedish businessman Bjorn Algkvist, and Thomas Aiken and his amateur partner, American businessman Frank Keener.