Higgins tied for the lead at The Oxfordshire
 Paul Nessling. Picture: Tom Dulate / Getty Images

Paul Nessling. Picture: Tom Dulate / Getty Images

As a talented goalkeeper in his youth Paul Nessling was no stranger to keeping clean sheets and bar a last hole bogey, served up the golfing equivalent to dive into contention at the Titleist & FootJoy PGA Professional Championship.

The Cooden Beach Golf Club pro, who as a teenager was on Sunderland’s books alongside England star Jordan Henderson, fired an almost flawless 67 in tricky conditions at The Oxfordshire to join Ireland’s David Higgins at the top of a crowded leaderboard after three rounds.

Nessling’s five under par effort, which matched the low round of the day by David Callaway, included an explosive start with three birdies in four holes.

Fittingly his fireworks came alongside playing partner, and occasional coach, Andy Raitt from St George’s Hill who had ignited the £78,000 event with a course record equalling 63 in the first round.

The pair traded birdies and Raitt, after a nightmare 77 yesterday, is firmly back in the hunt with his 69 leaving him just two shots off the lead alongside defending champion Paul Hendriksen (Ivybridge) and Graham Fox (Clydeway Golf) with Thorpe Wood’s Stuart Brown above them one stroke behind the leaders.

Big-hitting Nessling revelled in both the challenge presented by the Rees Jones-designed Oxfordshire and playing alongside Raitt with echoes of the recent Open fresh in their minds.

“We were joking around saying let’s do a Mickelson and Stenson. We were dragging each other along – he made a couple of bogeys but came back well,” he added.

“Funnily enough I had a few lessons with Andy last year – he said I’d improved which is always a good thing. We worked on my swing and he’s been on Tour so it was good to pick his brains.”

Teeing off in the final pairing alongside Higgins in the PGA’s flagship event will be a first for Nessling but he is relishing the prospect.

“This is a new experience, but I’ll just try and do what I’ve done the last few days. It will be alien for me but this is why you play golf to be in this position and we’ll give it a really good go.”

Nessling hails from a footballing family with dad and brother both keepers but golf was always his preferred option despite being offered terms by Premier League outfit Sunderland.

“I was living in Sunderland but phoned up my dad and said this isn’t for me. I came back and did my PGA training and went from there.

“At Sunderland I used to get a lift to training with Jordan Henderson in his mom’s car which he was on the insurance for. I’m sure that’s changed now for sure!”

Waterville Links-attached Higgins meanwhile was philosophical after playing some of his best golf but managing only a level par 72.

“It was a frustrating day today,” he said. “I played well and putted nicely but they just didn’t go in but that’s golf. You’re frustrated when you come off but when you look at the leaderboard I’m still tied for the lead.

“Today was tougher, the timing was off, whenever we played the harder holes it was into the wind with a bit of rain but I had plenty of luck in the first two rounds so it evens itself out and I’m in a good position.”

Brown bogeyed the last to end one shy of the leaders but has been buoyed by his return to form after some hard work with his coach Mark Sturgess who is also on caddy duties this week.

“I’ve had a slow start to the season, played poorly and decided to make some changes,” said Brown.

“The last few weeks my game’s been iffy but I can see the positives there and this week it’s nice to come out to a course where you’ve got to hit the shots and thankfully my game is standing up nicely when I hit them.”

Titleist & FootJoy PGA Professional Championship – The Oxfordshire, (Par 72)

Detailed scores

207 Paul Nessling (Cooden Beach)  68 72 67, David Higgins (Waterville Links)  69 66 72

208 Stuart Brown (Thorpe Wood)  69 70 69

209 Andy Raitt (St George’s Hill) 63 77 69, Paul Hendriksen (Ivybridge) 71 68 70, Graham Fox (Clydeway Golf) 69 68 72

217 Mark O’Mahony (Titleist National Fitting Centre)  74 71 72, Padraig Dooley (Drive Golf Performance Ltd) 72 71 74

223 Eamonn Brady(Clontarf Golf Club)  74 72 77