Japan’s Noboru Sugai produced one of the most dogged performances ever witnessed on the European Seniors Tour, defying winds gusting up to 40 miles an hour to record a two over par 73 and open a six shot lead heading into the final round of the Senior British Open, presented by MasterCard, at the Royal County Down Golf Club, in Newcastle, Northern Ireland.
Sugai, from Toyko, a four-time winner on the Japan Golf Tour, posted a three round aggregate of six under par 207, to go into the closing 18 holes six shots in front of Canada’s John Irwin, who carded a 74.
The Japanese golfer is also seven in front of South Africa’s John Bland, whose 73 put him in third place on one over par 214 and leaves him with an outside chance of ending a sequence of three second place finishes in this Championship.
In contrast, Tom Watson, the pre-Championship favourite, saw his dreams of a first Senior British Open title all but blown away after carding a five over par 76. That left the five-time Open champion trailing in a share of fourth place alongside Scotland’s John Chillas on two over par 215.
Watson began his round with an ugly three putt on the 454 yard par five first and also dropped shots at the third, fifth, sixth and tenth before briefly recovering with birdies at the 479 yard par five 12th and the 421 yard par four 13th. However, that was but a brief respite in what was a torrid round for the man from Kansas. He recorded his fifth bogey at the 14th and then, to compound his misery, took a double bogey six down the 450 yard 15th.
"The course won, I’m afraid,” said Watson at the end of his round. “It’s as simple as that.
“I didn’t put up much of a challenge. Now it’s up to Mr Sugai. It’s his tournament to win or lose.”
Sugai got his third round off to the perfect start with birdies on the 371 yard par four second and the 194 yard par three fourth. The Japanese golfer did suffer a momentary lapse when he recorded successive double bogey sixes at the eighth and the ninth but then came home in level par 36 to set up what is the largest 54-hole lead in European Seniors Tour history.
“I still can’t quite believe what’s happening,” said Sugai. “”I felt a lot of pressure when I had those two double bogeys but now I want the wind to blow, blow, blow because I hit the ball nice and low.”
“The money would be nice,” the Japanese golfer added. “But it’s the trophy I want. I want it more than anything else.”
Sugai has a good deal more than the £79,000 first prize to shoot at in the final round. Were he to win, he would become the first wire-to-wire champion since Neil Coles in 1987 and Gary Player in 1988 and he also has a great chance to set a new Championship record for the biggest winning margin. Currently, that record is held by New Zealand’s Bob Charles, who finished seven shots ahead of America’s Billy Casper at Turnberry in 1989.
Scotland's John McTear was on the only competitor to match par during the third round and his 71 would have been even better but for two bogeys over his closing two holes.
"It was very tough out there," said McTear, formerly the club professional at the Cowglen Club in Glasgow, who moved up from 45th into a share of 12th place.
"Normally, I hit my shots low so that helps. Nowadays, I play my golf at Turnberry so I am also used to playing seaside golf. You have to manufacture a lot of shots. The secret is to keep it out of the wind as much as possible."
The shot of the day came from America's Bill Brask who holed a 112-yard pitching wedge for an albatross two on the 479 yard par five 12th hole. He returned a four over par 75.
England's Neil Coles and New Zealand's Bob Charles go into the final round tied in the race for the £3,000 Hardys Wines Super Seniors prize, awarded to the leading competitor aged 60 and over. Charles recorded a 77, one better than Coles, with both men going into the final round on nine over par