SA Stroke Play heads to thrilling finish

Moving day at the South African Stroke Play Championship turned into a slight traffic jam with a sizable pack of international rivals chasing third round leader Bradley Neil from Scotland.

The 18-year-old Blairgowrie amateur reeled in five birdies and 13 pars in a clinical performance at the Benoni Country Club for a 67 and assumed control at 13-under-par 203. But overnight leader Dermot McElroy is just one off the pace, while South Africans Jason Smith and Stefan Cronje are only two shots back heading into Friday’s title chase.

Ballymena’s McElroy boxed a 20-foot putt for eagle at the 18th for a 70 that left him in the thick of things, while Smith from Pretoria sandwiched seven pars between an eagle at the par-five 10th and a birdie at the last for a 68. Unheralded Cronje from Nigel got a grip on the nerves that cost him three shots early in the round and rallied with three birdies and an eagle for a 69.

As if having three players breathing down your neck is not enough, Neil also has local favourite Christiaan Bezuidenhout lurking just four off the pace.

The SA number one followed an opening 64 with a dismal 74, but recovered well with a 69 to join Keegan de Lange from Gauteng North on nine under. De Lange, winner of the Gauteng North Stroke Play a fortnight ago, posted the day’s best score – a 66. The pair lag one shot behind Switzerland’s Joel Girrbach, who shot to 10 under with a 68.

Neil, a member of the visiting Scottish Golf Union Mens National Squad, hopes the same game plan will carry him to the podium on Friday.

“I got off to a pretty slow start, but the birdie at the eighth gave me a little momentum,” said the 2013 Scottish Boys Match Play champion.

“I birdied the next two holes, and picked up two more at the 13th and 14th. Nothing too spectacular, but anytime you can finish a round with a clean card, you’ve had a great day.

“I’ll do much the same in the final round; no need to change things up. Someone will shoot a low round, so I’ll just work on giving myself enough chances to challenge down the home straight.”

McElroy had a brace of bogeys at the fourth and fifth and another at the 15th, but managed to eliminate the damage with three birdies.

“I drove the ball really badly on the front nine and I was scrambling for par all the time,” the Ulsterman said. “I missed a lot of putts all through the round, so it was good to hole the 20-footer at the last.”

Smith from Irene Country Club dipped to three under through four holes, but lost two shots at the sixth and eighth. The 19-year-old Centurion golfer recovered well with an eagle at the 10th, and lipped out for a second eagle at the 18th.

“It was really nice to tap in for eagle at 10 after missing a birdie putt at the ninth,” he said. “It would have been pretty special to make two eagles on either end of seven pars. I was pretty happy with my round and I’m excited to see what the final round will bring.”

Compatriot Cronje is looking at the final round with a mix of excitement and trepidation.

“It’s the first time I’m in this position and in this kind of company and I let my nerves get the better of me early in the round,” the 20-year-old admitted.

“The ruling I got at the fifth didn’t help, either. I was on the out of bounds line, so my ball was deemed out of bounds and I ended up with a double on my card. It unsettled me, but I got it going properly on the back nine.

“I’m just happy to be in contention and I’ll be really happy if I can just shoot four rounds under par and finish somewhere in the top five.”

Leading Third Round Scores:

203 – Bradley Neil SCO 70 66 67

204 – Dermot McElroy IRE 69 65 70

205 – Jason Smith 71 66 68, Stefan Cronje 69 67 69

206 – Joel Girrbach SUI 68 70 68

207 – Keegan de Lange 72 69 66, Christiaan Bezuidenhout 64 74 69

208 – James du Preez 72 69 67, Edgar Catherine FRA 71 70 67, Paul Elissalde FRA 71 66 71, Kyle McClatchie 68 72 68

209 – Romain Langasque FRA 71 69 69, Ewen Ferguson SCO 67 73 69

210 – Altin van der Merwe 72 67 71, Gerlou Roux 71 70 69, Zander Lombard 70 70 70

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