Craig Lee still in contention for SA Open title

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - MARCH 15:  Craig Lee of Scotland reacts to a shot during the final round of the Tshwane Open at Pretoria Country Club on March 15, 2015 in Pretoria, South Africa.  (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - MARCH 15: Craig Lee of Scotland reacts to a shot during the final round of the Tshwane Open at Pretoria Country Club on March 15, 2015 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
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Craig Lee remained in contention in the weather-hit BMW SA Open as tournament host Ernie Els vowed to beat the dreaded yips after missing the halfway cut in Johannesburg.

When play was suspended – and later abandoned – at Glendower Golf Club due to the threat of lightning for the third day in succession, the Scot was lying joint-tenth.

The 38-year-old had covered 15 holes in his third round in three-under par, having recorded four birdies, to sit five-under – five behind the joint-leaders, South African Brandon Stone and Englishman Daniel Brooks.

“I’m delighted with my performance so far,” admitted Lee, who dug deep at the end of last season to secure his European Tour card for the fourth year running through finishing 100th on the money-list. “I’ve not played much over the winter so I’m a little surprised to be up there.

With nine and seven holes to play respectively, Brooks and Stone face a gruelling final day as organisers squeeze in the remainder of the third round then the last circuit.

“I’ve only got two-and-a-half holes left to play, so tomorrow shouldn’t be too long a day for me,” said Lee of his contrasting situation to the leaders. “However, I’m getting over a cold so might be drained for energy come Sunday night.”

David Drysdale and Jamie McLeary, the two other Scots to survive the cut in the opening event of 2016, were also under par for the day when play was halted. Both, in fact, were two-under after 13 holes to sit alongside each other in joint-37th on one-under.

Els, a four-time major champion, had been three over par with three holes to play in the opening round before seemingly reviving his chances of a sixth victory in the event with a birdie on the seventh and an eagle on the par-5 eighth.

However, the South African then three-putted the ninth, his final hole, to card a one-over-par 73, with the 46-year-old’s par putt from 18 inches not even touching the hole.

Els, who added a 74 in the delayed second round to miss the cut by a shot, missed two similar putts in the space of a month towards the end of last season and admitted at the time he did not want to watch the first of them – in the Dunhill Links Championship at Carnoustie – after it went viral on the internet.

With anchored strokes banned since 1 January, the two-time Open champion cannot go back to the “belly” putter with which he won the last of his major titles in the 2012 Open, but remains determined that the problem will not mean the end of his stellar career.

“I’m so stubborn,” said Els during a commentating stint for Sky Sports during the third round. “I felt like I could do the same thing I have for the last 30 years and get the same results.

“I putted cross-handed in the second round and it felt so much better. I love the game too much, I’m not going to stop. I’m going to get over this by using the cross-handed method and still have fun out there.”

Brooks, who led after both the second and third rounds in last year’s Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open before finishing seventh at Gullane, had claimed a slender lead at the halfway stage after completing the last 11 holes of his second round in six under par and doubled his advantage with a birdie on the first in round three.

However, the 28-year-old bogeyed the fifth after a wild drive and had company at the top of the leaderboard when Stone, tipped to become South Africa’s next superstar, carded four birdies and one bogey in a front nine of 33.

Brooks briefly reclaimed the lead with a two-putt birdie on the par-five eighth, but the highly rated Stone then holed from 10 feet on the 11th for his fifth birdie of the day shortly before play was suspended.

Branden Grace, the world No.14, briefly held the outright lead when he birdied the 14th hole of his second round on Saturday, but bogeyed the 17th and 18th and was three over for the first 10 holes of his third round to drop six shots off the pace.

Elsewhere, Clarke Lutton will join the exempt Paul Doherty in flying the Scottish flag in this week’s Asian Tour Qualifying School final after the Aberdonian progressed from one of four first-stage events in Thailand Playing at Springfield Royal in Hua Hin, Lutton signed off with a 74 for a three-over-par 287 total to finish joint-22nd.

In the non-paid ranks, Craigielaw’s Grant Forrest finished as leading Scot in joint-17th in the Australian Master of the Amateurs at Royal Melbourne, where American Aaron Wise claimed the title by two shots with a five-under-par total of 283.