Tullamore’s Stuart Grehan is just a shot off the pace heading into Friday’s final round of the South African Stroke Play Championship.
Just two years after Dermot McElroy was denied by Jason Smith, the 23-year old reigning “South” and “East” champion is ready to take on the South African ace, who is tied for the lead with Scottish Walker Cup player Ewen Ferguson on 17 under par.
Maynooth University star Grehan is lurking just one behind on 16 under par after crucial birdies at the last two holes at the Blue Valley Golf and Country Club helped him add a 68 to the course record, 10 under 62 he shot in round two.
Joint leader Smith overcome a nervous bogey at the first with six birdies in a five under 67 as Ferguson eagled the par-five 18th for a 68.
Sweden’s Tim Widing is alone in fourth, three off the pace on 14 under after a 69 while a 68 for Naas’ Jack Hume leaves him the next best of the Irish, six shots off the lead in joint eighth on 11 under.
It’s been a week of red hot scoring at the Gary Player designed championship layout with Smith setting a new course record 64 in the first round only to see it broken twice on day two.
Widing carded a 63 early in the second round before Grehan set the new mark with a 10 under par 62 late on Wednesday afternoon.
Smith edged out McElroy, Scotland’s Bradley Neil and compatriot Stefan Cronje to lift the title by one stroke at Benoni Country Club in 2014
But while he bogeyed the opening par-four first, he rallied with his first pair birdies at five and six.
Another brace of gains at 12 and 13 and a third pair at 17 and 18 left him with a chance to enjoy a repeat performance, but the 19-year-old Irene golfer knows he will have to keep his foot on the pedal.
“The scores are going to be low on Friday, so will have to shoot low to have a chance,” he told the South African Golf Association’s Lali Stander.
“The course is in pristine condition and the greens are receptive. Even though the set-up is tough, the guys are firing at the pins.
"There're still a lot of guys who can hit a hot streak in the final round to win, so I am just going to keep doing everything that I've been doing.”
Ferguson, who fired a flawless second round 64 to join Beckley in pole position on Wednesday, had a great run with birdies at one, three, four, six and eight, but bogeyed the ninth to turn four under.
Battling fatigue on the back nine, the 19-year-old Bearsden golfer dropped further shots at 11 and 16, but the arrival of his Scottish Golf Union National Squad team-mates at 18 did the trick.
“I hit a hard six-iron to 20 feet and popped the ball in the hole,” Ferguson said. “My caddie said if I made birdie at 18, he would carry the bag to the car, so I guess you can say I made double sure.
“Seriously, though, the guys pitching up at 18 was just what I needed. It was great to finish on a high note and get a round of high fives.”
Ferguson held a share of the lead in 2014 and 2015 and knows he will have a fight on his hands to cross the finish line this year.
“The leaderboard is very tight and any guy within six or seven shots from Jason and I could potentially hit another course record and beat us to the podium,” he said.
“It’s going to take precision golf and a bunch of birdies to close the deal. I am going to have a good night’s sleep and go for broke on Friday.”
Hermitage’s Rowan Lester shot a 74 and slipped from seventh to 17th on eight under but Warrenpoint’s Colm Campbell posted a fine 69 and climbed nearly 30 places to 25th alongside Castle’s Alex Gleeson (70) on seven under.
It was a disappointing day for Ballymena man McElroy, whose 73 relegated him for tied 20th to 34th on five under alongside Faithlegg’s Robin Dawson, who signed for an excellent 68.
South African Stroke Play Championship, Blue Valley Golf and Country Club (Par 72)
- T1 Ewen Ferguson -17
- T1 Jason Smith -17
- 3 Stuart Grehan -1668
- 4 Tim Widing -14
- T8 Jack Hume -11 68
- T17 Rowan Lester -8 74
- T25 Alex Gleeson -7 70
- T25 Colm Campbell -7 69
- T34 Dermot McElroy -5 73
- T34 Robin Dawson -5 68
- T88 John Ross Galbraith +1 36