Cinderella boy Shane Lowry is on the verge of a fairy tale victory after carding a sensational one-under par 71 to share the lead entering the final round of the weather ravaged 3 Irish Open.
Leading by two shots from Robert Rock playing the par five 18th, the 22 year old Offaly amateur showed his first signs of nerves all week when he three-putted from just off the green as the Englishman birdied for a 69 to snatch a share the lead on 16 under par.
Sweden's Johan Edfors is lurking just two shots behind on 14 under after a 68 with Nick Dougherty, Alastair Forsyth and Thomas Levet six off the pace on 10-under.
Disappointed with his mistake at the last but still believing he can win, Lowry said: “I am still happy enough. A 71 was a respectable score out there today and I am tied for the lead going into the final round and I couldn't really ask for any more.
“That was a bad bogey at the last. I hit a bad third shot and should never have been going near that pin and I left myself a really tough putt
“But if I go out and play the same game I have played up to now I will have a good chance tomorrow.”
Rory McIlroy is so impressed by the big Offaly amateur’s performance at Baltray that he’s advising his former foursomes partner to turn professional if he grabs what would be an incredible win.
McIlroy said: "If Shane wins, I'd tell him to turn pro the minute after he holes the last putt. I sat and had lunch with him in the players' lounge and we were talking about it. I'd be the first on the 18th green to congratulate him.”
Rock, 32, disappointed the home crowd with his birdie at the last but showed no signs of feeling sorry for Lowry after closing a two-shot gap in tough conditions.
Seeking his first win, Rock said: "Shane played well today and good luck to him but I am concentrating on winning the tournament. It was a tough day but a good day."
Two shots clear overnight following his sensational second round 62, Lowry parred his opening hole in a vicious squall before high winds forced a five-hour weather delay.
It didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest as he came back out in lighter winds to fire one of just seven sub-par rounds yesterday.
He extended his overnight lead to three shots when he parred the second and third and while he bogeyed the short fifth he was three clear of Johan Edfors, Thomas Levet and Rock after a birdie at the long sixth.
Cheered on by a huge local gallery, he drained a 30 footer for an unlikely birdie at the ninth to get to 16-under par and remain three in front of Rock before a bogey at the 10th saw his lead reduced to just one stroke.
But he holed a 15 footer for a birdie at the 12th to go two shots ahead again and while Rock birdied the 13th to cut the gap to one, Lowry saved par from 10 feet at the 14th and then rifled his tee shot to just 18 inches at the par three 15th to go two ahead.
It could have been three had he holed an excellent chance from eight feet at the 16th, but he showed his class when he saved par from 15 feet at the par-three 17th after visiting a bunker off the tee before making that unforced error at the last.
On a day when Graeme McDowell was forced to withdraw with shin splints, Darren Clarke suggested that Lowry should take the leap in the pro ranks as soon as possible and skip September's Walker Cup.
The next best placed Irish player in the field on four under par after a 73, Clarke believes that Lowry would not go far wrong if he followed in his footsteps and turned professional instead of waiting until after September’s Walker Cup.
“They way I looked at it, I felt I would be a better player six months down the road as a professional that I would be as an amateur,” said Clarke, who was also 22 when he turned pro following his Irish Close win over Padraig Harrington at Baltray in 1990 instead of waiting until after the 1991 Walker Cup at Portmarnock.
Tour earnings of over €18 million prove the point and Lowry is already on the hit lists of management companies such as Chubby Chandler’s ISM, Dublin-based Horizon Sports and giants IMG, who handle Harrington and Tiger Woods.
“That’s the way Chubby advised me and think now in hindsight you would have to agree that he was probably right,” Clarke added. “It is a personal decision. If he is desperate to play Walker Cup, you can’t argue with that. But he will be a better player if he turns professional and plays in some professional events.
“The Walker Cup used to count for a lot in terms of getting invitations for professional tournaments but not any more. It doesn’t make any difference.”
After following an opening 77 with a sensational course record 61, McDowell slipped from six-under to one-over in the worst of the weather to see his chances disappear.
He could have gone on when play resumed but opted to withdraw on medical advice with the BMW PGA Championship and the European Open on the horizon.
“I came limping up the last fairway yesterday,” McDowell said. “I am not making excuses but I was in a lot of pain. I can’t really risk it with two very big events coming up in the next two weeks."
The Ulsterman felt that play could have continued and was upset that tour officials decided to call a halt.
"I thought it was pretty ridiculous," said McDowell "I couldn't understand why, when they called it off, I really didn't feel like the wind was blowing much harder than when we teed it up.
"The course set-up was all right. I feel a bit hard done by being on the toughest nine in the toughest conditions.
"When they called play I was a bit like 'What's going on here - it doesn't feel much tougher than it was two hours ago?'
"I played myself out of the tournament and I feel like I could jeopardise the next couple of weeks if I don't rest up.
"I picked up the injury on Thursday, yesterday it got progressively worse and this morning, after I warmed up, I was really struggling to walk.
"I got straight on the phone to my physio and he sent one of the Tour physios to strap it up. It was difficult conditions and I'm making any excuses, but I was in a lot of pain.
"I'm disappointed that I have to do it here. This is only the second withdrawal of my career and not something that I like to get in the habit of doing."
Gary Murphy (75) slipped back to two under with Damien McGrane (75) on one-under and Paul McGinley 16 shots behind the leader on level par after a 77.