IT WAS shaping up nicely for Ernie Els and Branden Grace. Both out early, they were finished in plenty of time to get a front-row seat for the South Africa versus Scotland clash in the Rugby World Cup. “It helps when you know the man who runs the tournament,” joked Grace, who whipped off his jersey so that he could show off a top close to the Springboks’ green for a television interview, of compatriot Johann Rupert, who, of course, bankrolls the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
Having both moved to 11-under-par – Els took route 66 on the Old Course at St Andrews to reach that mark while Grace signed for a 68 at the same venue in his third round – the pair headed off for their evening entertainment hoping to be within touching distance of the lead, only for Dane Thorbjorn Olesen to leave them with a bit more work to do today than they’d have ideally liked.Holing a birdie putt at the last almost on the same line but longer than the 20-footer that Zach Johnson rolled in to get into the play-off he subsequently won to become Open champion here in July, Olesen came in, an hour or so after both Els and Grace had finished, with a 65.
It put the 25-year-old on 17-under-par, giving him a three-shot lead over German Florian Fritsch heading into the final circuit, where the two South Africans have six shots to try and overturn in their bid to land the title and a £523,207 first prize.
Olesen, the 2012 runner-up, spun his approach at the first back into the Swilcan Burn, but had soon forgotten about that setback as putt after putt started to drop as the £3.3 million event continued to play in unseasonal weather conditions. “When we were here in July, we couldn’t get it done in four days,” said Els of The Open spilling over to the Monday. “Yet, in October, you could be down at the beach having a swim.” Olesen arrived here with a sinking feeling. Despite claiming his second European Tour title in Australia just under a year ago, he’s lying 124th in this season’s Race to Dubai, so is battling to hang on to his card. He missed three months of the campaign after undergoing an operation on his left wrist and has also suffered from a niggling groin problem, but neither health or fitness have held him back since returning to action.
“A lack of consistency has been my biggest disappointment,” he admitted, having seen that illustrated in the Scottish Open at Gullane, where he held the outright lead after an opening 63 but then missed the cut after crashing to a 77. “I’ve had some good Thursdays and good Fridays,” added Olesen, who was just as pleased with some of the par putts he converted as the ones that secured four birdies in his final five holes. “I haven’t been able to do it for all four rounds, but hopefully that can happen this week. It’s a nice position to be in, but, if the weather keeps like this people are going to shoot low scores around this course, so I’ll have to find a few birdies.”
Grace, the 2012 winner, is still a danger, as is Els, particularly as the four-times major champion appears to have been left unscarred by horrifically missing a six-inch putt by six inches to the right of the hole at the 17th at Carnoustie in his opening 71. “It was an ugly experience as I really showed the public what a yip is,” said Els, who blamed the jab on him feeling uncomfortable with a putter that had weight in both the grip and head and has since changed to one that is both shorter and only has weight in the head.
As the leaderboard finally sorted itself out, rookie pros Paul Dunne and Jimmy Mullen both slipped back after signing for 72 and 74 respectively at Carnoustie while Swede Joakim Lagergren moved in the opposite direction with a 62 at Kingsbarns that catapulted him into joint-fourth on 12-under. David Drysdale’s 66 at the same venue lifted him into joint-13th on 10-under, one ahead of Stephen Gallacher (68) and two better than Marc Warren (71). By staying in the top 25 today, Drysdale will climb into the Race to Dubai safety zone from 121st.