Jbe Kruger (Getty Images)
Jbe Kruger will take a one shot lead into the final round of the Avantha Masters, but a host of players will fancy their chances at DLF Golf & Country Club where just three shots separate the top 15.
The South African had two eagles and two birdies in a round of 66 which left him 11 under, one stroke ahead of halfway leader Peter Whiteford, Germany’s Marcel Siem and France’s Jean Baptiste Gonnet.
On a day of fluctuating fortunes, Kruger’s consistency over the third round eventually proved the decisive factor as the 25 year old kept his card bogey free.
In contrast, Siem fought back brilliantly after double bogeys at the first two holes, Whiteford double bogeyed the sixth and 17th – the latter costing him the outright lead – and Gonnet did well to recover from four bogeys in his first 12 holes with a run of five birdies in the last six holes.
Kruger’s first eagle came at the par five sixth when he holed a 20 foot putt, and he was even more impressive at the driveable 15th, holing a putt from off the green after his five wood finished short of the putting surface.
Allied with birdies at the fourth and 18th, the former amateur star has a tremendous opportunity to collect his maiden European Tour title on Sunday.
“I’m going to try to play how I played today,” he said. “If it’s meant to be my week, it’ll be mine, so I don’t want to think too far ahead yet.
“The putts need to go in and I think that’s what defines the winner. I’ve been reading the greens a little better as I’ve been struggling with it during the week.
“My putting has been good and if I can see the line, I’m confident my putts will go in. I’m improving and I’m a lot more experienced, and I think that will give me the edge.”
Asked about his eagles, Kruger added: “I got a little bit lucky on the sixth. I used a six iron and it landed about 20 feet away, and I managed to sink it. That was the longest putt I made today and I was lucky it went in.
“On the 15th, I just drove it a little short of the green and I made a pretty simple putt from about 12 metres. I managed to judge it to perfection and sink it.”
Scot Whiteford led by three when he birdied the first from 15 feet, but he needed four shots to find the green at the 486 yard fifth, then missed his bogey putt after chipping to three feet.
At that stage the 31 year old was locked in battle with compatriot Marc Warren, and birdies at the sixth and ninth looked to have restored Whiteford’s momentum.
Two bogeys and three birdies followed over the next six holes and a comfortable lead looked likely for the former Challenge Tour star, but his approach to the short 17th came up short and found the water.
“I’m raging, I’ve let everyone back in it with that score,” said Whiteford. “If I’d managed a three or four under, I would have had a good lead, and I gave myself enough chances to shoot a lower score.
“It could’ve been a two or three horse race, but now everyone’s in it. It was disappointing on the 17th because my tee shot landed in a divot and I came up short with a nine iron. I had enough birdies to keep positive, but overall it’s disappointing.”
Siem’s nightmare start was followed by seven birdies, two bogeys and an eagle at the last after a magnificent four iron approach.
“It was a crazy day,” said the 31 year old, who finished fourth in Dubai last week. “The first hole I hit it left and tried to hit my second shot over the trees, but it hit a trunk and went into the trap on the 18th.
“It was plugged and I ended up taking double bogey, then the next hole I hit another tree, didn’t get on in three and had a chip and two-putt for another double. So all of a sudden I was four over, but luckily I kept my head and came back with eight birdies and an eagle. It was pretty cool today. It showed a lot of heart to come back from a start like that and keep going.”
José Manuel Lara matched the best-of-the-week 64 to leap 38 places into a tie for fifth on nine under, alongside Warren (68), Italy’s Andrea Pavan (67), Australian Marcus Fraser (69), Thai Prom Meesawat – who chipped in at the last for a 71 – and former Ryder Cup Vice Captain Paul McGinley.
The Irishman has been plagued by knee problems over the years, but was delighted to show signs of his vintage form in a round of 68.
“This is only my second tournament this year because I had a knee injury at the end of last season which I’m still coming back from,” said Europe’s hero from the 2002 Ryder Cup victory at The Belfry.
“I haven’t been able to play a full schedule this year so far because of the rehabilitation, but hopefully as the season goes on I’ll be able to play more and more.
“It’s a pleasant surprise to be in contention because I’ve played so little golf. It was nice to finish birdie-birdie, and I nearly eagled the last – I hit a four iron to about 20 feet but just missed the putt. I played nicely and 68 is a good score.”