Palmerston product Aaron Pike is undaunted by the six-shot deficit he will have to reel in after Austin Bautista conjured a mid-round rescue mission at the Tailor-made Building Services NT PGA Championship.
Leading by four at the start of Saturday’s third round at Palmerston Golf Course, Bautista extended his advantage to five with a birdie at the first yet endured a roller-coaster round on his way to a three-under 68 and an 18-under par total through 54 holes.
That gives him a six-shot buffer from defending champion Pike (68) with Ben Wharton (69), David Micheluzzi (70) and Adam Blyth (71) two shots further back in a tie for third.
Coming off a course-record 10-under 61 on Friday, Bautista needed just four putts in his first four holes as he made miraculous par saves at two and four, a birdie at six extending his lead to six shots.
Yet three straight bogeys from the seventh hole reduced that margin to just two, a home-made turkey roll as he headed to the 10th tee providing the fuel and mindset shift to play the back-nine in four-under and re-establish a sizeable advantage.
“Usually if I have a stretch of holes like that, three bogeys in a row, it’s not my golf game that’s wrong, I’m probably hungry or I might be thirsty,” Bautista explained.
“I slammed down half of my turkey sandwich and got my food back into where it should be and then I started making swings that I know I can make.
“I missed three putts in a row so on 10 I focused on my breathing for that putt and made a great stroke. The main thing was getting nice, deep breaths in because if you’re breathing correctly you should be able to think correctly.
“To bounce back is definitely key but same thing tomorrow, foot down from the get-go and get to 30-under.”
Estimating that he has played the course “easily thousands of times” growing up on the golf course, Pike will get a front-row seat to how Bautista handles the Sunday pressure of trying to close out a maiden ISPS HANDA PGA Tour of Australasia title.
The defending champion claimed his third Australasian Tour win earlier this season at TPS Hunter Valley and revels in the opportunity to play in the final group.
“Winning’s tough. As far as I know he hasn’t won as a professional and winning’s tough,” said Pike, who had bogeys at 10 and 12 in his round of 68.
“I had to finally break through and do it and there are numerous guys who have had those problems.
“I’m not saying he can’t win or can’t do anything but I’m going to try and make it as difficult as possible because I want to win.
“I went on the record after winning at Cypress saying that I love getting deeper into the tournaments because I was really good at match play when I played amateur golf. All my titles were match play championships and I love that facet that I’m just eliminating person after person after person.
“I do like that one-on-one, in the last group, that kind of battle. Most of the times when I’ve won I’ve either been in the last group or the second-last group.
“That’s obviously something’s that a positive for me.”
The final round of the NT PGA also represents the final 18 holes of the PGA Tour of Australasia season with Order of Merit implications throughout the field.
Of greatest significance is the race for the third of the DP World Tour cards up for grabs, Andrew Dodt (68) edging three shots clear of fourth-placed Dimitrios Papadatos (73) while seventh-placed Pike is eyeing off one of the five exemptions into Korn Ferry Tour Final Qualifying School at the end of the year.
Wharton is playing to push into a category that will put him into the big events next season while Tim Hart’s hopes of maintaining his Tour membership were aided by a seven-under 64 on Saturday, the best of the day.
A prolific winner on the adidas PGA Pro-Am Series circuit who attacks golf courses from every angle, Hart is now tied for sixth following a round that featured an eagle, eight birdies and three bogeys.
“I’ve been battling a technique flaw in my swing for pretty much the whole season so it’s good to finally put a score together on Saturday and give me a chance for Sunday,” said Hart, who holed a putt from 25 feet for eagle at the par-5 13th.
“I knew before this week that I needed probably a top-three to keep a Tour card. That’s why today was good, to give myself that chance to shoot a low one again tomorrow to try and keep a card.
“I’m just going to go out there and do what I can tomorrow to give myself a chance.”
Round 4 of the Tailor-made Building Services NT PGA Championship begins at 9am Sunday at Palmerston Golf Course with the leading group to commence at 10.30am. Entry for spectators is free.