WHAT had looked as though it could turn into a one-horse race is now a lot closer to call. Four ahead at halfway, Gary Boyd has fellow Englishman Robert Coles for company at the top of the leaderboard heading into the final round of the SSE Scottish Hydro Challenge. Two and three back respectively, Thailand’s Prom Meesawat and another raider from south of the Border, Jack Senior, can’t be discounted either at Macdonald Spey Valley in Aviemore.
With a three-shot gap to the chasing pack, it would be surprising if the winner isn’t one of the leading quartet, with Coles, an experienced campaigner, having just edged ahead of Boyd, his younger compatriot, as the title favourite after one maintained momentum while the other stuttered somewhat on a tougher day on Speyside than the opening two.
In fairness, it was asking a lot to expect Boyd, bidding to record his first win on the Challenge Tour in more than six years, to keep playing as well as he had in opening with a brace of 64s. Nonetheless, it was frustrating for the 28-year-old Banbury-born player to follow his three birdies by dropping a shot at either the next hole or soon afterwards.
“It was a bit more difficult out there today – the wind got up and made clubbing a little tricky,” said Boyd after signing for a 70 to sit on 15-under 198. Birdies at the fourth, tenth and 16th took his tally of 2s this week to an impressive nine. The long holes, though, haven’t been so profitable. “It was disappointing to play the par-5s in two over today, especially the fifth, where I just had a 4-iron in my hand for my second shot,” he added.
“But I am tied for the lead going into the final day. It looks like a four-horse race between me, Rob, Prom and Jack. But hopefully I can go wire-to-wire, which is always a tough thing to do.”
Coles, a three-times Challenge Tour winner but also bidding to end a six-year drought, had missed six cuts in a row before finishing joint 12th in last week’s event in France. The 42-year-old coaxed in a 15-footer for an eagle at the fifth before joining Boyd at the head of affairs on the back of three birdies in a row from the 13th. Boyd’s birdie at the par-16th edged him in front again but there was to be no hat-trick of birdies to finish for a third day running. A bogey 6 at the 17th saw to that.
“I’ve been playing rubbish this year so this is a bit of a bonus,” admitted Coles, who worked on a market stall in London during his amateur days, after carding his third straight 66. “You can never put your finger on what is wrong, but it’s just been a combination of little things. I changed coach and went back to some of my old methods to see if that would help. Probably needed a bit of freshness. It’s been steady all week but I didn’t know it would be this good.”
Meesawat, a 28-year-old who has won twice on the Asian Tour, is sitting 64th in this season’s Race to Dubai, having finished third in the China Open and 35th in the BMW PGA Championship. Unable to secure a start on the European Tour since Wentworth, he has turned his attention back to the Challenge Tour. A birdie-birdie finish for a 66 has put him in the hunt for a maiden victory on the second-tier circuit.
Senior lost to Jordan Spieth in the opening-day singles at the 2011 Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen before holing a birdie putt from the front of the final green 24 hours later to snatch an unlikely half against Nathan Smith as Great Britain & Ireland beat a star-studded American side. The 26 year old from Morecambe also birdied the last two holes in a flawless 66 – a popular score – to keep alive his hopes of another triumph on Scottish soil.
Ross McGowan achieved such a feat when landing the Scottish Open Stroke-Play Championship at Craigielaw in 2006. He is among four players on nine-under after a 67, while Ross Kellett, who finished third in that event in East Lothian, is a stroke behind alongside fellow home hopeful Andrew McArthur.
“I was on the cusp of qualifying for the Ryder Cup team in 2010, but then I tore a cartilage in my wrist after hitting a tree root at Wentworth,” recalled McGowan, who has gradually worked his way back up the ladder and won the Zambian Open earlier this year. “All in all I lost maybe two and a half to three years. But it’s all good now. I’m playing quite a bit now and hopefully I’ll get back to where I was.”
McArthur’s 68 was illuminated by a 20-foot birdie from the fringe on the 16th. “I played well again,” he said. “It wasn’t quite the 63 I’d said I could shoot. It was more difficult today. But I’ll need a 63 tomorrow.”
Two-under for the day, Kellett was going along nicely until a three-putt bogey at the 11th “halted my progress”. The Motherwell man added of his 70: “I actually played better than the score suggests. I just wasn’t clinical enough. I’m going to need a bit of help from the leaders on the last day.”
The weather forecast for the denouement isn’t promising. With heavy rain being predicted for this morning – a fall of between 7-14mm is expected on top of 3mm on Friday – a two-tee start will be in operation.