Gutsy Justin Rose left Padraig Harrington with little room for manoeuvre in his bid to retain the Order of Merit after a brilliant comeback from a nightmare start in the Volvo Masters at Valderrama.

The pair eventually carded matching level par 71s on another windswept day at the Cadiz track to leave Rose sitting pretty, four strokes clear of Harrington and Yorkshire’s Simon Dyson on four under par with a round to play.

Bidding to become the youngest winner of the Harry Vardon Trophy for 18 years, Rose bogeyed the opening hole as Harrington conjured an unlikely birdie by threading his approach through the branches of a tree.

But the 27-year-old showed the kind of grit he will need today as he came back from a double bogey six at the second hole that completely erased his four-stroke lead and played the remaining 16 treacherous holes in three-under par.

“Justin came back very well from that start,” conceded Harrington, who mixed three birdies and three bogeys for his third 71 on the spin. “I can’t now get away with having a bad day, whereas he can still win not having a good day. It’s kind of in his hands tomorrow.”

The upside for Harrington is that he will not be distracted watching Rose again as Dyson snatched his place in the final two-ball. Instead, Harrington paired with Germany’s Martin Kaymer in the second last group.

The German rookie’s third round 66 is a yardstick for Harrington, who knows that he may have to take as aggressive an approach as possible to close the gap on Rose.

“Four shots behind is a lot to ask going into the final round,” said Harrington, who produced a final round miracle to win the Order of Merit last year. “But I am quite happy that I am not in the same group and I will be doing my own thing tomorrow and not watching what he is doing.

“Any hole can yield a birdie or a double bogey. A lot can change very quickly. It is a long tough grind but Martin Kaymer shot five under today, so a good score can be had.”

Second and third in the Order of Merit behind absentee Ernie Els, Harrington and Rose cannot afford to finish outside the top three if they are to deny the South African his third Order of Merit

Rose only has eyes for the €666,660 top prize and he confessed that he drew on the positives of the final round of this season’s Masters, where he had two double bogeys in his first three holes but still managed a 73.

“It was a heart attack start,” said Rose, whose sand save from eight feet at the 18th could prove vital in the final analysis. “I had a sand wedge and a pitching wedge on those first two holes and made a five and a six. Not to drop a shot for the rest of the day was pretty unbelievable. A couple of years ago I would have panicked.

“I still think a four-shot lead is nothing to get excited about, as I proved in two holes. It can evaporate very, very quickly. But I survived the day and I’m delighted to maintain a four-shot lead.”

Ulsterman Graeme McDowell slipped back to eighth place on four over par after a 74 that was marred double bogey seven at the par-five 17th while Paul McGinley also hit a 74 that dropped him from seventh to 10th on five over par.

Warrenpoint’s Ronan Rafferty, who was the Volvo Masters champion in 1989, withdrew with a left wrist injury before the start after rounds of 83 and 89 left him 30 over par.