Simon Thornton and David Higgins were looking on the bright side after a difficult third day in the Italian Open.
While he birdied the last to undo some of the damage, Higgins was bitterly disappointed with a one over 73 that saw him slip from one behind at halfway to four adrift of leader Marcus Fraser (68), who leads by one from Nicolas Colsaerts (70), Joakim Largergren (67) and Francesco Molinari (71) on 11 under par.
Thornton is only two behind Fraser, tied for fifth with Felipe Aguilar on nine under after coming back from a mid-round wobble following an early surge into the lead to card a 72.
They were not the kind of rounds that would have a player doing cartwheels on moving day but the Irish pair still have options. In fact, with just five shots covering the top 25 on the leaderboard, the stage is set for a final round cavalry charge.
Having won already this season in St Omer, Thornton is certainly under less pressure than 40-year old Higgins, who could put his card to bed with a top-two finish.
“It was hard work in the middle section,” said Thornton, who birdied the first and third to take the lead but then dropped shots at the short eighth, the par-five 12th and the par-three 13th before birdies at the 14th and 15th settled him down and he was happy to salvage a bogey four at the par-three 16th.
“I hit it lovely at the beginning and made birdies but then I got a little bit quick. I knew I was getting quick and coming over the top and hitting a lot of shots left through the middle section. But I am happy enough with the way I finished.”
Confessing that sticking his neck out in front early on had an effect on him, he said: “I suppose so. You’d like to say no, but these guys keep making birdies and you’ve got to keep going. So any sort of dropped shot or anything like that and you feel like you are dropping a couple at a time, like I did on a par-five. So I was happy enough overall.
“[The birdies at the 14th and 15th] got me back to one under for the day and I was quite comfortable then and started to slow things down and see my shots start on target again and finish on target as well. I hit a bad shot at the 16th and made a good up and down for a four.”
Despite shooting only 72, Thornton was surprised scoring was not better in perfect conditions but he was happy not to find himself further behind.
“I certainly think you might need to shoot five or six under tomorrow, but we will see,” he said after what he described as an enjoyable round alongside local hero Molinari.
“It was great certainly watching him play as well but I used the atmosphere and the crowds as a positive for myself as well.”
Higgins did not play quite as well as he did on the first two days and felt that officials should have continued with preferred lies.
“It was hot and cold,” Higgins said after making four birdies and five bogeys. “Some good and some not so good but I made birdie at the last so I am okay. One over is not so bad considering the way I played.
“Yeah, yeah [I’m still on a good position] but it is just disappointing to play like that when you get an opportunity like this on a course that suits my game.
“I just lost my rhythm a bit and hit some poor shots. I can’t put my finger on why. But I hit some good shots too so we will move forward.”
Explaining that age and experience helps him accept the bad days, Higgins added: “I will be okay after something to eat and I will be ready to go in the morning.”
Still, he was surprised score weren’t lower, adding: “I think it was a mistake not to have placing. The ball sits down and you get some funny lies and you can’t control it.
“I had a couple of mud balls, which wasn’t good, but it is the same for everyone. That’s the way it goes. I doubt they’ll change back now.”
As for leader Fraser, he’s determined to spoil Molinari’s bid to win his national open around the course where he learned to play the game.
“I just need a couple of those putts to drop at the right time and if I can get a few putts to drop early then we will see what happens,” said Molinari, the 2006 Italian Open champion, after his 71.
“I probably need to be a little bit more aggressive tomorrow with my approaches to the greens but I will be giving it everything to try and win. The support I have had has been unbelievable and I have never seen crowds like this in Italy – it has been so good to see that and hopefully everyone can have a good day tomorrow.”
Fraser, and the other leading contenders, are aware that they will be going up against a man carrying the hopes and dreams of a nation in the final round, but they are determined to spoil the party.
“I have a great chance,” said Fraser. “It is an exciting position to be in and I feel like my game is in good shape and I am playing a course that I love so I just need to go out there and play my own game as I have done for the first three rounds.
“That will be difficult with Francesco just one shot behind and with the crowd willing him over the line, but I just have to play my game and try and spoil the party I suppose.”
Colsaerts felt his third round 71 could have been better but is hoping he is saving the best till last.
“It felt like I had a good one in me but maybe I am saving it for tomorrow,” smiled the Belgian.
“It has been a while since I have been up there and it certainly gets my juices flowing. I have always played well in Italy – it must be the pasta or something – so I am looking forward to getting out there.”
Lagergren is the least experienced of the men at the top of the leaderboard, but, after back-to-back rounds of 67 the Swede has certainly earned his chance to secure a maiden European Tour win.
“If I can put in a good score tomorrow then we will see what happens,” he said. “I have been in this position a couple of times now and hopefully I can handle it well.”
Damien McGrane, meanwhile, shot a 76 to fall back to joint 65th on level par.
Complete Round three scores:
205 M Fraser (Aus) 66 71 68,
206 N Colsaerts (Bel) 65 71 70, F Molinari (Ita) 68 67 71, J Lagergren (Swe) 72 67 67,
207 F Aguilar (Chi) 69 66 72, S Thornton (Irl) 68 67 72,
208 R Gonzalez (Arg) 65 73 70, H Otto (RSA) 71 67 70,
209 R Wattel (Fra) 71 72 66, M Manassero (Ita) 70 70 69, J Quesne (Fra) 70 68 71, B Wiesberger (Aut) 69 72 68, M Kieffer (Ger) 65 72 72, D Higgins (Irl) 67 69 73, S Hend (Aus) 72 71 66, S Webster (Eng) 67 69 73, R Paratore (am) (Ita) 72 66 71,
210 E Grillo (Arg) 70 72 68, M Foster (Eng) 74 65 71, J Edfors (Swe) 69 70 71, F Zanotti (Par) 71 70 69, A Cañizares (Esp) 71 67 72, S Benson (Eng) 68 70 72, J Van Zyl (RSA) 70 69 71, C Doak (Sco) 74 67 69,
211 M Carlsson (Swe) 72 71 68, S Jamieson (Sco) 72 69 70, F Andersson Hed (Swe) 73 67 71, J Campillo (Esp) 68 73 70, R Finch (Eng) 68 74 69, M Baldwin (Eng) 71 68 72, S Wakefield (Eng) 70 73 68, R Derksen (Ned) 71 69 71, A Quiros (Esp) 71 67 73,
212 E Kofstad (Nor) 70 69 73, D Drysdale (Sco) 69 72 71, J Hansen (Den) 68 74 70,
213 G Orr (Sco) 73 68 72, K Broberg (Swe) 70 73 70, R Allenby (Aus) 71 72 70, J Olazábal (Esp) 71 68 74, M Korhonen (Fin) 70 70 73, R Ramsay (Sco) 75 68 70, M Nixon (Eng) 70 69 74, M Madsen (Den) 72 71 70,
214 A Levy (Fra) 70 72 72, J Ruth (Eng) 69 72 73, O Floren (Swe) 71 72 71, S Khan (Eng) 73 70 71, L Slattery (Eng) 70 73 71, M Grönberg (Swe) 71 70 73, J Walters (RSA) 70 73 71, J Kingston (RSA) 68 71 75, A Tadini (Ita) 72 71 71, T Aiken (RSA) 69 71 74, G Fdez-Castaño (Esp) 71 70 73, A Hartø (Den) 69 74 71, G Storm (Eng) 70 71 73, M Tullo (Chi) 70 70 74,
215 P Whiteford (Sco) 73 68 74, S Dyson (Eng) 69 74 72, G Mulroy (RSA) 71 72 72, D Howell (Eng) 71 72 72, D Horsey (Eng) 72 70 73,
216 R Goosen (RSA) 70 72 74, B Åkesson (Swe) 72 69 75, G Bourdy (Fra) 71 72 73, D McGrane (Irl) 71 69 76, R McEvoy (Eng) 73 70 73,
217 J Lucquin (Fra) 71 72 74, T Lewis (Eng) 70 72 75, G Boyd (Eng) 74 69 74,
220 P Erofejeff (Fin) 74 69 77, E Lipparelli (am) (Ita) 69 73 78,
221 E Goya (Arg) 69 72 80