Branden Grace (Getty Images)
Branden Grace’s dream season continued as he moved into a three shot lead at the Volvo China Open with a third round 64.
Since coming through The European Tour Qualifying School at the end of 2011, the 23 year old has won back-to-back titles on home soil and risen to sixth in The Race to Dubai.
One behind Gary Boyd and Jean-Baptiste Gonnet overnight, Grace raced clear with a brilliant eight under par round that took him to 18 under par overall at Binhai Lake.
Defending champion Nicolas Colsaerts, looking to become the first player to win the event twice, is second after a 66, with Paraguay’s Fabrizio Zanotti third on 14 under after matching Grace’s round of 64.
After chipping to within a foot at the second and holing a putt from the fringe at the fifth for early birdies, Grace hit the front with a 20 foot eagle putt at the sixth.
He was the sixth different leader of a hectic morning at that stage but, unlike the others who temporarily hit the front, Grace motored on to pull further clear with a chip to three feet at the seventh for an outward 31.
He holed a six footer at the 11th and, after three-putting the 14th for his only bogey, pitched to within two feet at the 15th, sank a five footer at the 17th and fired his approach to two feet at the last to finish with three birdies in four holes.
“I’ve really hit the ball good,” he said. “This year the putting has really been standing out and I’m making a lot more putts.
“I’m really positive at this stage and getting those first two wins under my belt is great - I just want to really push on from here.
“It is hard to believe that I am going for third title of the season. I don’t think may people expected me to do that and I probably didn’t myself.
“I knew that one win was round the corner but to win two back-to-back was amazing. Now I am looking good for the third at the moment but I have to try and not think about that too much tomorrow and go out there and play the way I have been all week.
“I have a nice lead but I don’t think I can go out there tomorrow and relax and let the guys come at me. I will be aggressive on the holes that I know I can be and try to make some more birdies.”
Grace, no slouch off the tee with an average pushing 300 yards this season, is looking forward to partnering Colsaerts for the second day running in the final round.
“It is going to be good to be in the last group with him tomorrow,” he added. “We are obviously big fans of Volvo tournaments as well – he is defending here and I won the Champions earlier this year so tomorrow we will see who has the most Volvo titles.
“I think I have accepted that I will never be able to match Nicolas. There were a couple of times out there today where I really banged it out there and he would step up and really connect and he was 40 yards past me! You just have to accept the fact that he is very long.”
Belgian Colsaerts rolled in a ten footer for birdie at the fourth and, not surprisingly, The European Tour’s longest hitter gained shots at three of the four par fives in his bogey-free round, finishing with a glorious pitch to three feet at the last.
“He (Grace) played a fantastic round of golf today – it was flawless apart from missing one short putt,” said the 29 year old. “He played superb golf. I was trying to give myself chances but I left a few short. Maybe I was a little too cautious, but at least I did not put myself out of it.
“Coming to the course today we knew it was going to be calmer and scores would be lower although not that low. There is a nine and a bunch of eight unders which has proven it can be done in the right conditions.
“People tell me I play well in Volvo events but how well has he (Grace) done as well? It is going to be difficult to catch this guy tomorrow. I think it would be better for me if the wind would blow a bit tomorrow so that I can make a move because if it is like it was today it will be harder to catch him.”
Zanotti’s best finish so far this season is 44th in Morocco, but the 28 year old – looking for a first European Tour win after two runner-up finishes – drained a 20 footer at the seventh for one of eight birdies in his flawless round.
“It is the best round of the year,” he said. “I have been working very hard. Things did not start very good in the beginning of the year but you keep patient and keep trying. Hopefully tomorrow I can have a good day and be a little more happy.”
Gonnet ended the day in a tie for fifth on 13 under after a round of 70, along with Swede Alex Noren – whose 63 was the best round of the week so far – South African George Coetzee (64), Spaniard Ignacio Garrido and Australian Marcus Fraser (both 67).
Meanwhile Boyd recovered well from two early three-putts with birdies at the last two holes for a 71 that left him level with, amongst others, Ryder Cup star Francesco Molinari on 12 under.