Ernie Els took a giant step towards penning another chapter in golf’s record books when he moved smoothly into the lead after the third round of the Alfred Dunhill Championship at Leopard Creek.
The 38 year old South African equalled the best round of the week with an eight under par 64 – just one shot outside Trevor Immelman’s course record – for a 13 under par total of 203 and a two shot lead over the dogged Englishman Lee Slattery, who posted a 67 for 205, while two other Englishmen, John Bickerton and Ross McGowan, will share third going into the last day after they ended round three on nine under par 207.
But all eyes will be on Els in round four. Since 1972, outside the Major Championships and World Golf Championships, only three golfers have won a single European Tour Order of Merit event on four or more occasions; Bernhard Langer, who won five German Opens and four German Masters, Nick Faldo who won four PGA Championships at Wentworth Club, and Seve Ballesteros who captured the Open de France four times.
Now Els has a chance to join that exclusive club in the Alfred Dunhill Championship, his previous three victories coming in the 1995 season at the Wanderers Club, in the 1999 season at Houghton Golf Club, and in the 2006 season at Leopard Creek itself.
"That's the round I've been looking for a while,” said Els. “I played well and I said yesterday I felt good about my game, but was disappointed with my finish.
"But today was a good day. I started off with two birdies and had so many other chances. The start was really nice and kind of settled me down a little bit. I played really nice, hit the driver nice and my overall game was really good today."
Certainly if the three time Major winner reproduces the faultless golf he produced in an almost exhibition-like performance in the third round, allied to his intimate knowledge of the Mpumalanga layout, then he will be a hard man to stop.
Starting the day three shots behind the halfway leader Omar Sandys, who fell away in an error strewn third round to end the day in a share of fifth place after a 74, Els made his intentions crystal clear with birdies at the opening two holes.
A further birdie followed at the sixth to see him to the turn in 32 and at that point he was still very much amongst the group of leaders at the head of affairs. But, turning for home, Els turned on the style to power clear of the chasing pack.
Four birdie putts dropped in the next six holes, beginning with a curling 40 footer at the tenth and he followed that with further gains at the 12th and 13th. His chances of adding to that at the par five 15th looked remote when he pulled his approach well left of the green but he produced a superb pitch to four feet and holed out for his seventh birdie of the day.
Regulation pars followed at the 16th and 17th before he ended in style at the par 18th, finding the fringe of the green in two with a superb recovery shot over the trees following a pulled drive before a delicate pitch and putt gave him birdie number eight.
Second placed Slattery will partner Els in the final round and showed sufficient tenacity and talent in his third round 67 to suggest he will be there to pounce should the overwhelming favourite for the title stumble in the final round.
Like the South African, Slattery, who lost his card by the agonising sum of €77 before regaining it at last month’s Qualifying School, opened with birdies at the first, second and sixth holes but dropped a shot at the ninth after a pushed drive.
However he got back on track immediately with a birdie from six feet at the tenth, added another from 12 feet at the 15th before he too, like Els, ended with a birdie four, laying up on the 541 yard hole before playing an exquisite pitch to four feet and holing out.
"Obviously 64 (from Els) is a good score today,” he said. “I went out this morning thinking anything under par would keep me in it for the tournament. But you never know with Ernie.
"He's one of these guys who can shoot that score and win the tournament quite comfortably. But if he goes out tomorrow and shoots a good score then I'm going to have to shoot a really good one. So it's nice to really be the only one to be in touch with him."
Completing the leading quartet, who have broken away from the rest of the field, are Bickerton and McGowan who both birdied the final hole to post respective third rounds of 68 and 67.
While Els grabbed the attention at the head of affairs, it was an excellent day further down the leaderboard for two of the younger players in the field; Joost Luiten of The Netherlands and England’s Oliver Wilson, both of whom recorded their first official holes in one on The European Tour.
Luiten was first to post an ace, holing in one at the 192 yard 12th hole with a seven iron, a shot which won the 21 year old Dutchman – who finished sixth on the 2007 Challenge Tour Rankings – a brand new Audi TT Roadster Convertible.
The ace was the highlight of a spectacular third round for Luiten who came to prominence when he finished second to Ross Fisher in August’s KLM Open in his native Netherlands. He carded six birdies elsewhere in a flawless 64 to move from a share of 58th place at the start of the day to a share of fifth at the end of it.
“The first two days was also a seven iron and the wind was about the same - I just hit it. It landed on the green perfectly and just rolled in the hole,” he said. "We didn't realise there was a prize. Not at the first moment, until they said it and then we saw it on the sign behind us."
Wilson soon followed suit, the 27 year old Englishman’s glory moment coming at the 207 yard 16th courtesy of a perfectly struck five iron which took one hop, hit the pin and dropped into the hole. Wilson’s reward was a staggering 190 cases of Terra de Capo wine, the figure of 190 representing the length of the 16th hole in metres.
Elsewhere Wilson, who finished 30th on the 2007 Order of Merit, had five birdies and three bogeys in a four under par 68 which moved him from a share of 31st place at the start of the day into the top ten going into the final round.