A dozen players, including eight Aussies, are within four shots of the Australian PGA Championship lead heading into a final round that promises to deliver a riveting finish.
BY STEVE KEIPERT at RACV ROYAL PINES RESORT
AN American and two South Africans lead from a Swede and host of Aussies with one round to play of a wide-open Australian PGA Championship at RACV Royal Pines Resort.
Harold Varner III carded the lowest round on a pleasant Gold Coast Saturday to move from three strokes over par to the same number below it. His 66 is the second-best round of the week so far and leaves him tied at three-under with the South African duo of Dylan Frittelli and Zander Lombard, who led after the first day. Both men shot 71 in the third round, Frittelli after a morning surf at nearby Burleigh Heads.
Riding a wave of a different kind was Nathan Holman. The Victorian shot a two-under 70 to move to one-under and sits alone in fourth place as the leading Australian. He did so despite beginning with a double-bogey on Saturday. Behind him among the locals are perennial leaderboard lurker Matthew Millar at even-par and six more Australians at one-over: Daniel Nisbet, Richard Green, Cameron Smith, Michael Wright, Jack Wilson and Dimi Papadatos.
Overnight leader David Lingmerth made two double-bogeys in his back nine to slide back to even par, tied with Millar, but the Swede remains only three strokes in arrears.
Varner III was error-free in his electric round, saving par at the last with a stunning greenside pitch from beside the grandstands and well below the level of the putting surface. Lombard made a long putt for birdie at the difficult par-4 13th then pitched in from beside the par-3 16th green for his last birdie before a bogey from the trees right of the 18th fairway prevented the 20-year-old from leading outright. Frittelli, meanwhile, joined the fray with a pinpoint approach to the 17th that led to a tap-in birdie to climb to three-under.
But the man who set the hot pace today feels he needs to perform even better in the final round.
"I need to play well tomorrow," said Varner III, who birdied both back-nine par-3s in my run that sandwiched another gain at the par-5 15th. "I was playing pretty well the first two days, just a few bad mistakes and didn't hole many putts, so just looking forward to the opportunity tomorrow. I can't get too wild tonight, so I'm going to calm down."
The 25-year-old from Akron, Ohio, who will play the PGA Tour in 2016, said his golfing dad got him into the game but it was Tiger Woods that he aspired to be like as he grew up.
“Tiger Woods was the best golfer I ever saw so he’s pretty good. I always look up to people who are good at golf,’’ Varner said.
“I don’t know how old I was but I remember I went and watched him play a practice round (at the Wells Fargo on the PGA Tour). I don’t know what year but I obviously watched him on TV. He’s pretty good.’’
Varner is the first African-American player to gain promotion to the PGA Tour from their high finish on the Web.com Tour and will be hoping to add Australian PGA Champion to his resume on returning to the United States.
Frittelli experienced only one "wobble" on his way to the clubhouse and it involved himself.
"I honestly felt really relaxed out there," he said. "Only little speed wobble was on 16. I was putting straight back up the hill and I managed to see myself on the screen behind there; literally where I was aiming was straight where I was on the screen."
He bogeyed there, but the 25-year-old doesn't expect to get in his own way again tomorrow.
"Just focused on hitting fairways and greens," Frittelli said. "It might sound cliche, but it's really the most important thing in these tough conditions. Sure, a lot of guys have found some trouble off the tee and into the green and that's really all I'm trying to avoid. Just play the smart shot and give myself the best chance to make a par and if the birdies come, I'll be happy with it."
The three leaders will be chasing history at Royal Pines tomorrow. The last foreigner to win our PGA was Kiwi Greg Turner in 1999. No American has won since Hale Irwin in 1978, while the most recent South African champion was Gary Player in 1957 when it was still contested as matchplay.
But if this Australian PGA Championship follows its current script, brace for a player back in the pack to propel himself into contention with a low round tomorrow, as Nisbet did today. The Queenslander teed off in the third group of the day with the entire field in front of him on the leaderboard yet his 67 (bettered only by Varner's 66) has him at one-over for the tournament and just four shots behind. Tomorrow he'll start in the fourth-last pairing.
The Joe Kirkwood Cup sits polished and poised to be passed to a new champion. Who that will be shapes as an intriguing battle of the nations.