They played the back nine in a combined 11 over par to see their title hopes all but evaporate. Yet Graeme McDowell, Michael Hoey and Damien McGrane still have a lot to play for in the final round of the Alstom Open de France.
American Kevin Stadler shrugged off a back niggle to card a one over 72 on a day of squally showers and testing breezes at a punishing Le Golf National to extend his overnight lead from three to four shots and leave the Irish trio eight shots behind him in a tie for seventh.
Victory looks out of reach if Stadler plays well on Sunday, but with McDowell chasing crucial world ranking and European points in his Ryder Cup qualifying bid and Hoey and McGrane in position to grab one of three exemptions on offer for The Open at Hoylake in a fortnight, there’s still a lot at stake.
Sadly for all three, their brilliance on the front nine was cancelled out by a rash of mistakes on the way home on a course that severely punishes mistakes.
McDowell did himself no favours with bogeys at the first and fourth but then showed why he’s a major winner by reeling off four birdies in the next five holes to move up to tied fourth on four under.
A hat-trick of birdies from the fifth included a somewhat fortunate chip in from a tricky spot behind the green at the sixth but he was forced to press by Stadler’s exceptional opening two rounds, he eventually paid the price for some uncommitted swings on the back nine.
They cost him a bogey at the 10th and another dropped shot at the 13th, where he found water with his second after being tempted into going for the green after a poor drive.
“It’s been haunting me a bit that shot this week,” McDowell said of his tentativeness off the tee at time. “Just trying to -- a little squeeze control, trying to control a 3-wood or a 5-wood off the tees and try to find these fairways. I just haven't been committing to those shots. I've been missing them all left.”
His title challenge all but ended when he took seven at the par-five 14th, finding trouble off the tee and deep rough with his third and his fourth.
And while he battened down the hatches to par the last four holes, a two over 73 was not what he had in mind.
Stadler leads by four from Thongchai Jaidee (69) and the inexperienced young Frenchman Victor Riu (73) and by six from US Open champion Martin Kaymer, which means that McDowell needs to shoot four or five under par on Sunday to have any chance.
"All I can do is go try to shoot 66, 67” said McDowell, who is in a five-way tie for seventh with his Irish compatriots, Swede Robert Karlsson and England’s Mark Foster. "I’m sort of four or five shots out of second, and you know, there's a 75, 76 waiting for anyone on this golf course.
"I'm disappointed with that back nine today because I really felt like I swung the club decently at times. But we’ll get back out there tomorrow and see what we can do."
Hoey got off to a great start and played some of his best golf of the season as he made h birdies at the second, sixth and 10th to move within three of Stadler's lead on six under par.
But he played the remanding seven holes in five-over par for a 73 with an over-hit tee shot into deep rough at the par-three 11th leading to the first to two expensive double bogeys.
Having bogeyed the 13th, the other double came at the 15th when he found water. But there’s a huge amount still at stake for the 35-year old.
Riu, Karlsson and Hoey are in position to take the three spots in The Open on offer for those non-exempt players finishing in the top 10.
McGrane also has a chance but knows the odds or against him as the Open places will go to the players with the higher world rankings in the event of a tie.
Like Hoey, the Kells grinder, made a superb start in the worst of the early squalls, recovering from a bogey at the first with birdies at the second, third, ninth and 11th leaving him tied for third.
In the end, he couldn’t keep it going and dropped shots at the 12th, 15th, 17th and 18th for a 72 that leaves them tied for seventh with McDowell, Karlsson (70) and Foster (73).
As for Ballyclare’s Gareth Maybin, two birdies, two bogeys, a triple bogey seven at the seventh and a closing double bogey six added up to a 76 that leaves him four over and tied 39th.
At the top of the leaderboard, Stadler pieced together a workmanlike, one over 72 to move further in front in his bid for a wire-to-wire victory.
Dismissing a recurrence of a back twinge as nothing to worry about, he said: “I got about what I deserved today. I didn’t play that great, but I made a few nice up and downs for pars. I didn’t have nearly as many looks for birdie as I had over the last couple days, but you can’t expect to play that well for four days in a row.
“So it was just about holding it together today, I knew I didn’t have to do anything crazy to stay ahead. A couple less shots would have been nice today, but overall I’m happy the way it went.”
Jaidee’s 69 was one of just three sub-70 scores posted on a testing day and as Riu showed when making six bogeys and two birdies on the back nine, the leader cannot afford to get complacent.
“More of the same tomorrow, a lot of pars, and hopefully sprinkle in a couple of birdies and see what happens,” Stadler said of his plan.
With US Open champion Kaymer lurking six behind on three under and the attacking Matthew Baldwin (70) and Bernd Wiesberger (71) seven back on two under, there’s no shortage of good players waiting to pounce.
McDowell will want to finish second at worst but if Hoey and McGrane are to join him in The Open, they will need to produce golf worthy of that stage.
Alstom Open de France, Le Golf National (Par 71)
After 54 holes
204 K Stadler (USA) 64 68 72,
208 T Jaidee (Tha) 70 69 69, V Riu (Fra) 68 67 73,
210 M Kaymer (Ger) 72 68 70,
211 B Wiesberger (Aut) 70 70 71, M Baldwin (Eng) 70 71 70,
212 D McGrane (Irl) 71 69 72, R Karlsson (Swe) 73 69 70, G McDowell (Nir) 70 69 73, M Hoey (Nir) 73 66 73, M Foster (Eng) 69 70 73,
213 S Gallacher (Sco) 66 73 74, S Jamieson (Sco) 69 70 74, A Levy (Fra) 69 72 72, M Nixon (Eng) 71 72 70, K Aphibarnrat (Tha) 77 66 70, J Quesne (Fra) 74 71 68, J Donaldson (Wal) 67 72 74,
214 M Ford (Eng) 70 74 70, W Ormsby (Aus) 70 75 69, D Lynn (Eng) 73 69 72, M Siem (Ger) 65 72 77,
215 E Goya (Arg) 75 66 74, M Carlsson (Swe) 73 72 70, J Luiten (Ned) 73 69 73, M Warren (Sco) 69 73 73, T Linard (Fra) 72 70 73, R Kakko (Fin) 68 74 73, M Korhonen (Fin) 72 72 71, A Hansen (Den) 71 71 73,
216 K Broberg (Swe) 70 74 72, M Manassero (Ita) 68 73 75, G Stal (Fra) 74 68 74, A Sullivan (Eng) 73 71 72, D Howell (Eng) 72 72 72, F Molinari (Ita) 70 72 74, S Kjeldsen (Den) 72 73 71, D Bobrowski (Fra) 73 70 73,
217 R Fisher (Eng) 72 68 77, J Hansen (Den) 72 69 76, O Fisher (Eng) 69 71 77, R Santos (Por) 71 74 72, S Webster (Eng) 73 68 76, A Gee (Eng) 72 72 73, M Fitzpatrick (Eng) 69 74 74, G Maybin (Nir) 73 68 76, F Aguilar (Chi) 67 73 77, M Lundberg (Swe) 75 68 74, G Bourdy (Fra) 73 72 72,
218 R Sterne (RSA) 70 75 73, F Zanotti (Par) 73 70 75, S Kapur (Ind) 73 69 76, L Slattery (Eng) 70 73 75,
219 D Huizing (Ned) 72 73 74, E De La Riva (Esp) 73 71 75, A McArthur (Sco) 76 67 76, R Cabrera-Bello (Esp) 70 72 77, S Dyson (Eng) 73 71 75,
220 J Knutzon (USA) 72 72 76, J Heath (Eng) 71 73 76, M Kieffer (Ger) 72 73 75, A Kaleka (Fra) 72 73 75, E Molinari (Ita) 70 75 75, V Dubuisson (Fra) 76 68 76, J Brun (am) (Fra) 73 72 75,
221 N Colsaerts (Bel) 72 72 77,
222 P Waring (Eng) 71 73 78, S Hansen (Den) 74 70 78,
226 P Sjöland (Swe) 73 71 82