South African John Bland will be hoping it is third time lucky as he takes a slender one-shot lead into the final round of the Senior British Open, presented by MasterCard, at Royal County Down.
Bland, runner-up in both of his two previous appearances in the Championship, looked to have squandered his overnight lead with four dropped shots in his first eight holes. But the winner of five US Senior Tour titles bounced back with a brace of birdies around the turn and a further birdie at the 479-yards par five 12th. He added another birdie on the 16th for a round of 71 for a 54-hole total of seven under par.
But right on his heels is the man who beat him last year at Royal Portrush, Christy O’Connor Jnr. The Irishman similarly struggled to an outward half of 37 but pulled a shot back by matching Bland’s birdie on the 12th. Two birdies to finish gave him a round of 70.
“My putter wasn’t hot today,” said O’Connor. “Hopefully tomorrow I’ll get a better feel for the greens. John is a great campaigner, has done wonderfully in the States and is a tremendous putter which you have to be round here. Had my chance and didn’t take it. Poor putting. When you have chances you have to take them. I’m nly one back but will have to play well to hang on.”
Bland has twice been denied the title, first after a play-off with Gary Player in 1997 and then by O’Connor Jnr last year. But he managed to hang on to his lead coming down the closing stretch to maintain the upper hand.
“I didn’t play well on the front nine but also didn’t get any breaks,” he said. “Eventually got a great birdie in at nine which seemed to start me up again. Then birdied ten and 12 and from there knew the others would be getting close and wanted to get under par from that start. I’m pleased with a 71. Didn’t play very well but got off the course with a 71. On this course anything 72 downwards is pretty good.
“Christy, Hubert and I played the first two rounds together. It’s a nice draw and we are all good buddies but want to go out there and win the tournament. I’ve got to go out there and try and post a good score and see what happens. Everybody knows how tough the course is and how it can bite you at any time. It’s going to be a good final day.”
A further shot off the pace is double major champion Hubert Green, playing his first Senior British Open and bidding to become the first American player to win the title since Tom Wargo in 1994 at Royal Lytham & St Annes. The 1977 US Open Champion and 1985 US PGA Champion finished with three birdies for a round of 68 to move to five under par.
He said: “I squandered some chances early in the day and made up for them coming in. Made some little mistakes, hit some poor chips on 11 and 12. Threw shots away which I shouldn’t have done. You can’t afford to do that if you are going to try to win the tournament. Good players don’t. Tiger and Jack never did.
“I’m not worried about who is ahead of me. I got to play good golf to win. Whatever they do is irrelevant. I gotta play good golf.”
Tommy Horton also took a big step towards the one title that has so far eluded him with six birdies in his opening 12 holes to move within striking distance of the leaders.
Horton, winner of the Seniors Tour Order of Merit for the past year, needs a top 12 finish this week to take his career earnings past the £1 million mark. But far more important to the 59-year-old from Jersey would be to lay his hands on the Claret Jug. Since his first Senior British Open in 1991, he has finished runner-up twice and in the top-ten on a further five occasions. But despite winning 23 Senior Tour titles, the major title has slipped from his grasp.
A hat-trick of birdies from the first got his third round off to a flying start. Sandwiched between bogeys on the sixth and eighth were two more birdies and Horton then moved to two under par with another birdie on the 12th. He finished with a 70 to lie on one under par.