A rejuvenated and resurgent Nick Dougherty will enter the final round of his Challenge Tour debut as the outright leader after a flawless four under par round of 68 at the Pacific Rubiales Colombia Classic took him to seven under par.
The three-time European Tour winner has been rolling back the years at Country Club de Barranquilla after a long winter break from the game and enters a final round in contention for the first time since he won the BMW International Open on The European Tour in 2009.
The 29 year old is one shot clear of his compatriots Philip Archer, a two time Challenge Tour winner, and fellow Challenge Tour debutante Tyrrell Hatton.
In much more favourable conditions at the Caribbean coast venue outside the city of Barranquilla, Dougherty started with a bang as he reached the turn in three under par thanks to birdies at the second, fifth and seventh holes.
He gained another shot at the par five 11th before a steady run home, with seven successive pars, to sign for his best round of the week following opening rounds of 71 and 70, respectively.
“No bogeys is always good,” reflected the Liverpudlian. “It was a battle again, you just have to work your ball around the course. I'm obviously pleased with not having made any mistakes and all in all I fared really well on a tough day.
“I'm a little tentative at times on the course but that’s expected after a long layoff and also what’s gone before that, but I feel like all in all I'm dealing with it really well. I'm committing to my shots really well.
“The thing about this course is you have to try and pick up the shots on the birdie holes and get through the tough ones, about half of the holes can really bite you so I've done well to this point to avoid trouble by playing smart and hitting it where I want to hit it.”The last time Dougherty entered a final round in contention, he went on to win with a final round of 64 helping him overtake Retief Goosen and Bernhard Langer to take the BMW International Open in Germany.
But Dougherty insists he will temper his expectations going into ‘Championship Sunday’ in Colombia, having already far surpassed the ones he harboured entering the week.
“I wouldn’t have said coming here that I was ready for it but I seem to have fared really well so far so I'm delighted with that,” he continued. “To come here and have played well for the first three days and given myself a chance on Sunday, it’s very pleasing.
“The last time I was in with a chance was when I won so I know what to do, I have won at the highest level and beaten some of the players in the world but that’s not what I’m thinking about now. Most important for me now is to try and be as free as I can. Like I said before, it’s baby steps and for me, that’s about not stressing myself and not getting in my own way.”
There were two players from different ends of the spectrum right behind Dougherty in tied second, the extremely experienced 39 year old Archer and young 20 year old Englishman Tyrrell Hatton, who is playing on an invite this week in his first European-sanctioned professional tournament.
Archer, whose last win at the 2011 ALLIANZ Open Cotes d'Armor Bretagne came in pounding winds, started well with three birdies in his opening five holes, at the second, fourth and fifth before a bogey at the eighth meant he reached the turn in 34.
A par at the 10th hole was followed by a birdie-bogey-birdie run and another birdie at the 15th saw him home in four under par with a 68 to add to his successive opening rounds of 71.
“I got off to a quick start, which was nice, and then I maintained it really,” said the Warrington man. “The wind was definitely less than the first couple of days but you could still lose one way to the right or left if you’re not concentrating, but I just kept it in play and holed a few putts early on.
“I had the lead in Brittany and I’ll be chasing Nick down this time so it’s a little bit different but I’ll be doing just the same as the last few days, playing for the pars mostly and then attacking the holes you can attack.”
Hatton, meanwhile, is making his Challenge Tour debut having turned professional just last year, after missing out on a Walker Cup appearance despite being selected on the squad, and he is thoroughly enjoying his first taste.
“I'm definitely happy with that round,” he said afterwards. “It’s moving day so it’s nice to post a low number and I didn’t have a bogey either, which is brilliant. I'm used to the course now, you know where the wind’s going so that makes it easier. It’s great to make the cut and hopefully now I can get in contention.
“I was playing well prior to this so I was hoping to at least make the cut but it’s been a great week so far. The excitement has helped me and tomorrow I just want to keep it the same and hopefully some putts will drop.”
Denmark’s Morton Orum Madsen was one of the three players a shot further back in tied fourth after a stunning six under par round of 66, which included four successive birdies from the fourth hole onwards, before another on the ninth to reach the turn in four under par.
Birdies at the 11th and 16th consolidated that score and meant that he was nine under for his previous 35 holes, having recovered from a double bogey on the first hole of his second round to card a three under par 69 on Friday.
He joined 2010 Apulia San Domenico Grand Final winner Matt Haines and another Englishman Chris Hanson on five under.
Haines was on stunning form until the final stretch, moving to seven under for the day through 16 holes thanks to seven birdies before he suffered back to back bogeys on the 17th and 18th to sign for a five under par 67.Hanson, meanwhile, struggled to make headway in a front nine which included three birdies and three bogeys but birdies at the 11th and 14th kept him in contention with a two under par round of 70.