Australian Daniel Gaunt will carry a two stroke lead into the final day of the Apulia San Domenico Grand Final, when the fates of the 45 hopefuls battling for 20 European Tour cards will be decided.
After a round of 66 which moved him to six under par, Gaunt – whose life has changed immeasurably since winning the English Challenge in the summer – is now targeting a second Challenge Tour title to put the seal on a season which started with him playing on the third tier of professional golf.
Regardless of the outcome of the €300,000 event – which is being played at the stunning San Domenico Golf in Puglia, on Italy’s Adriatic coastline – Gaunt has guaranteed his graduation to The European Tour, where he will be joined by Austrian Bernd Wiesberger, currently in second place on four under par.
A closing bogey on the 18th hole, where he left his approach short of the green, rankled with the man from Melbourne, whose only other mistake came at the 14th hole, where he managed to save par after finding the water.
Gaunt, currently 12th in the Challenge Tour Rankings, said: “I’m pretty annoyed with the bogey on the last, because it’s one of the easier holes on the course. I hit a pretty average drive and then mishit my wedge, so it wasn’t the best of finishes. The only other mistake was at the 14th, but saving par meant I managed to maintain the momentum, then I holed a long putt on the 17th to build it even further. But the nature of golf’s that you forget about those and only remember the last hole, especially if it’s a bad one. Overall I have to be very pleased with a round of 66 though, especially as it takes me to the top of the leaderboard.
“It was a much better day weather-wise, and my focus today was also spot on. If I can take it with me into tomorrow, I’ll have a great chance. I’m here to win the tournament, and if I manage to pull it off, we’ll see where it takes me in the Rankings. Top ten would be great, top five even better. But I’m not really thinking about that just at the moment – I’ll worry about that tomorrow night. If I play well, then that should take care of everything else.”
A third victory of the campaign for Wiesberger would see the big-hitting Austrian end the season as the Number One graduate, unless current Rankings leader Alvaro Velasco of Spain can finish inside the top six and so move out of reach.
After two disappointing rounds Velasco fought back valiantly with a three under par round of 68 to recover to one over par, but the Spaniard still trails Wiesberger by five strokes.
The man from Vienna started brightly with gains at the third and fourth en route to turning in 32, but a cold putter and a bogey on the 17th – where Gaunt’s birdie meant a two-shot swing – saw him sign for a round of 70.
He said: “I got a couple of bad lies in the rough on the front nine, especially on the fifth where I made bogey. But after turning in two under par I felt pretty good, and then on the back nine I just couldn’t get anything going – especially on the greens. I just couldn’t read the greens at all. I hardly holed anything at all from the three to five metre range, so I’m going to go and work on that on the practise green. Then even when I did hit a good putt on the 17th green I got unlucky, because my ball went left after hitting a pitch mark or a spike mark. So that kind of summed up the day for me on the greens. But hopefully that was my bad break for the week, and I can have a bit more luck on the greens on the last day.
“I’m looking forward to it, because there’s no pressure on me. The top ten’s already safe, so I can go out there, be positive, and hopefully create a lot of birdie chances. Winning a third title would be the perfect end to a great season, and then I can relax and put the clubs away for a couple of weeks, before getting ready for next year on The European Tour. I can’t wait.”
Peter Gustafsson is on three under par in a share of third place alongside England’s Matt Haines and American Christopher Ryan Baker thanks largely to a late rally in his round of 70.
The Swede’s prospects of securing the top two finish he requires in order to leap into the top 20 of the Rankings appeared to recede after bogeys at the eighth, tenth and 12th holes, but he picked two shots up on the 15th and 16th to boost his hopes of a securing a maiden Challenge Tour title and with it a place on The European Tour.
He said: “I actually played really well today, but like Bernd just couldn’t get going on the greens. It was very frustrating, but I managed to stay calm for most of the time. I can get a bit angry with myself – I think it’s because I’ve lived in Spain so long, so I’m a bit more emotional – I’m no longer the ice cool Swede! But hopefully I can hole one or two on the final day, and it’s good enough to get me my card. Whatever happens, I just want to enjoy it, but either way it’s not the end of the world – Monday will still come!”
Haines stands every chance of consolidating, and even improving on, his place in the top 20 of the Rankings after a round of 69 which featured four birdies.
He said: “I struggled reading the greens today, but hopefully the pin positions on the final day will suit me more. I like this course – it suits my game. The fairways are quite generous, so you’re not under too much pressure. I’m sure there will be pressure tomorrow, but I’m confident of coping and coming away with my card.”
Baker, who won in Morocco earlier in the season, is currently in 38th place in the Rankings, and so like Gustafsson would need to finish first or second in order to secure promotion to The European Tour for the first time.
The American, who matched Haines’ round of 69, said: “I played very solid golf and made some great up and downs at crucial times. It was so important to keep the momentum going – they almost felt like pars, especially on the fourth where I made one of the best bunker shots of my career. So it was a good day, made even better by a birdie on the last. Hopefully I can make a few more tomorrow – it should be a great day.”
Further down the leaderboard, the likes of England’s Charlie Ford (currently 20th in the Rankings) and Spaniard Carlos del Moral (19th) will be staring nervously over their shoulders, as respective rounds of 69 and 72 left them languishing in tied 27th and joint 21st places.