Siomon Thornton in Munich last year. He wants to get back to the main tour. Picture Fran Caffrey/www.golffile.ieReigning Irish PGA champion Simon Thornton is within touching distance of his first victory on the European Challenge Tour after moving into a share of the lead with England’s Sam Little after the third round of the Golf Open Grand Toulouse.

The 34 year old, who gained a card for The European Tour at the Tour School Finals in 2009 but who had to hand it back at the end of 2010 after finishing 141st on The Race to Dubai, carded a third round 67 for a 13 under par total of 200 at Golf de Toulouse-Seilh in south west France, to move alongside Little, who posted a 66.

Thornton, winner of the Irish Club Professional Championship in 2005, finished in a tie for third place in the big money Kazakhstan Open two weeks ago to help him move up to 25th place in the Rankings and he knows another big week this week will see him advance into the top 20.

“I’m not the type of player who can play four or five weeks in a row so when I did well in Kazakhstan it gave me the chance to miss Russia and concentrate on this week,” he said. “If I therefore can have a good week here, it means I can take next week off and then concentrate on the end of the season.”

Level par after ten holes of his third round, the Irishman looked far from leader material but he suddenly found his range on the Seilh venue’s greens and he rattled in birdie putts at the 11th, 12th, 15th and 16th.

“It was just the putting I was struggling with a bit,” he said. “I three putted both the fourth and the tenth for bogey but then I just managed to find the pace and the range and that helped me produce a strong finish which is great as I’m right in the mix now.”

To succeed, Thornton will have to overcome the man of the moment on the Challenge Tour, Sam Little, who captured the M2M Russian Challenge Cup in Moscow last weekend and who has continued to tap into a rich vein of form this week.

The win in Russia moved Little from 43rd on the Challenge Tour Rankings to sixth, virtually guaranteeing him a place in the top 20 at the end of the season and a return to The European Tour where he competed for six years from 2005, before losing his card at the end of the 2010 season.

But just like his beloved West Ham United who were relegated from the Barclays Premier League last year, Little is looking not simply to return to the big time at the first time of asking, but to do it in style.

“In all honesty I was a bit tired after last week and I did think about taking this week off,” said Little, who made his charge up the leaderboard thanks to three birdies in four holes from the 12th.

“But I realised I was playing well and I decided to knuckle down, travel to France and try and feed off the good feelings I had last week in Russia. Barring a disaster I know I’ve probably got my card back for next year but I want to finish as high in the Rankings as possible and, of course, have a go at winning it outright.

“I know Tommy (Fleetwood) has a bit of a lead at the top at the moment and will be hard to catch, but if I can produce a few good finishes, then you never know. This year has been hard for me especially with a young family. I had six years on Tour and I want to get back there – it’s where I want to be.”

Below the leading pair is a logjam of players who have all taken advantage of the idyllic scoring conditions on offer this week.

One shot behind on 12 under par 201 going into the final round are three players: overnight leader Matthew Baldwin (71), his fellow Englishman Gary Lockerbie (68) and Norway’s Espen Kofstad (66) while Frenchman Julien Quesne’s 69 moved him to sixth place on his own on 11 under par 202.

Completing the top ten on ten under par 203 are the English duo of Eddie Pepperell (66) and Matt Evans (67), Welshman Garry Houston (68) and Frenchman Christophe Brazillier (71).