Roope Kakko edged closer to a return to The European Tour as the Finn roared into the lead at the National Bank of Oman Golf Classic, thanks to five consecutive back nine birdies en route to a six under par 66.
It is a high stakes affair in the crucial penultimate event of the European Challenge Tour season, and for all of the top three players – Kakko, Daniel Im of the USA and Italian Marco Crespi – victory would go a long way in securing graduation to The 2014 Race to Dubai.
Kakko currently lies in 17th place in the Rankings, just two places shy of the top 15 who earn their European Tour cards at the conclusion of next week’s Dubai Festival City Challenge Tour Grand Final hosted by Al Badia Golf Club.
A win this week on the stunning Almouj Golf, The Wave in the Omani capital of Muscat would earn Kakko a winner’s cheque of €35,028 and huge leap into the top ten.
The 31 year old admitted that he had been dangerously aggressive on the back nine but it paid off in spades as he embarked on a run of five consecutive birdies, holing a 15 foot putt at the par four tenth to get things going, before a bogey at the last left him just one clear at the top on 11 under par.
“That was one of the best rounds I have played in my career,” said Kakko, whose last win on the Challenge Tour came in 2004. “I played smart. I played towards the middle of greens and got into a little bit of a roll on the back nine. I had stayed patient and got rewarded in the end.
“I had a really silly idea in my head at the tenth tee. I said to myself, the more birdies you make on the back nine, the easier it’s going to be tomorrow. That was my crazy idea. I just wanted to make as many birdies as possible on the back nine to make it easier tomorrow but it worked out.
“Shame about the three-putt on the last - the last green is quicker and I knew that but it’s still really quick and I went six feet past but it will be an interesting day tomorrow.”
Kakko will battle it out with Im in the final pairing at the Challenge Tour’s maiden event in the Gulf Cooperation Council and he is relishing the opportunity.
“Of course I'm looking forward to it,” he said. “This is what we play for and I'm playing so nicely. Playing on such a demanding golf course, anything can happen so it will be an exciting day.
“I'm not hitting too many drivers and trying to get my ball on the fairways and trying to hit my irons to the flat parts of the green. I figured before this week that putting is what I'm usually good at so I tried to build my game on that.
“I tried to give myself as many chances as possible and hopefully roll a few putts in and the greens are rolling so nicely. There are plenty of opportunities.
“I have a good game-plan for this golf course and I need to trust the things I do well. I hit my two-iron good off the tee, I try to hit that as much as possible and give myself birdie putts because I have been rolling the ball nicely so that’s my plan and we’ll see where that takes me.”
Im, who carded a four under par 68 to move to ten under, is delighted to have hit a hot streak of form at such a crucial stage of the season and feels that if he takes some of the chances that have gone begging thus far this week, he could claim that elusive maiden Challenge Tour victory.
“It’s really exciting,” he said. “If I just do what I'm doing right now but just a little bit better I’ll be fine. It’s good momentum I have going into Dubai next week so I'm excited.
“I’m never satisfied but I think I'm getting there. It could be a huge week for me. It would mean a lot to win. I haven’t won a tournament since 2008 and I've been grinding since then so finally I feel like I'm ready to win a tournament.
“But there are so many good players out here so you never know what’s going to happen. All I can do is go out there and do what I can and see what happens.”
Crespi lies three shots off the pace in third position after a third round 69 moved him to eight under but a strong result this week could help him secure a rookie season on The Europen Tour, as he lies 14th in the Rankings.