Crowd favourite Cameron Smith will join elite company as a three-time winner of the Fortinet Australian PGA Championship if he can turn Sunday into coronation day.
Queensland’s celebrated Open champion will take a three-stroke lead into the final round after overcoming a mid-round wobble to reach 11-under-par with his 69 on Saturday.
The world No.3’s star-power and golf’s resurgence has drawn the biggest, most animated galleries to Royal Queensland since the 1980s over the first three days.
Another bumper turnout is expected for the closing round to see if Smith can keep at bay the chasing pack led by Japan’s Masahiro Kawamura (71) and China’s world No.900 Yan Wei Liu (70), both at eight-under.
Smith (68-65-69) put a gap on third-round leader Jason Scrivener with a shot-making and putting masterclass over the opening seven holes.
Smith thrilled a huge gallery with four birdies in that stretch. The gasps started on the second hole when he played a supreme 75-metre shot from a waste bunker to 40 centimetres for the first of his six birdies for the day.
At the fourth, Smith nearly holed an 8-iron cut to a back right pin on the 160m par-3. Partner Scrivener tugged his response left into the bunker. Smith’s short birdie putt put him into the lead for the first time.
“We couldn’t believe it missed, just looking at where the ball ended up,” Smith said of staring down the shot with caddie Sam Pinfold.
“I felt hot and really good that front nine. Just frustrated with a few things on the back nine but in those conditions I would have taken two-under at the start of the day.”
Gusty riverside breezes whipping up to 30km/h from early afternoon had something to do with it as did two indifferent chips from poor lies when he bogeyed the 11th and 12th.
Smith was not the first player to bounce long through the green on the downwind 18th and take his fourth bogey.
The young Queenslander is creating enviable history of his own. Should he win a third Australian PGA he will join the likes of Peter Senior, Peter Lonard and Robert Allenby (four) as hat-trick winners over the past 40 years.
Billy Dunk (five), Kel Nagle (six), Norman Von Nida (four) and Ossie Pickworth (three) had set the high standard in the decades prior.
Smith is excited to be in position to hold aloft the Joe Kirkwood Cup again after success in 2017 and 2018.
“I still get nerves but I’ve got better at handling them. Winning a third one would be nice and a shot at the Australian Open next week would be a really good end to a great year,” he said.
Smith revealed that he almost can’t feel the club in his hands when he’s playing off nervous energy that he turns into a positive.
“I love that feeling for some reason because it means you are playing really well… what better time for it than when in contention,” Smith smiled.
Smith’s lead was four shots by the seventh hole. By the 12th, Kawamura briefly joined Smith in the lead when he made birdie.
Smith found the accelerator again with back-to-back birdies on the 15th and 16th.
Scrivener faded until back-to-back birdies to finish his round of 74 to be seven-under. He didn’t have his first birdie of the day until the short par-3 17th but he received a huge roar from the fun-fuelled fans on the TaylorMade Party Hole.
Western Australian Min Woo Lee, with a fine 68, former Royal Queensland club champion Jake McLeod (70) and the consistent Brad Kennedy (70) are with Scrivener in joint fourth.
Former Masters champion Adam Scott dropped down the leaderboard with a 74 but Cam Davis and Scott Strange both made the most of Friday’s cut going out to one-over late in the day. The pair had excellent 66s to jump to 15th in the day’s best conditions.
McLeod said the finishing order was still “a lottery” because “more wind on the final afternoon with the greens firm and fast” could make for fluctuating scoring.
Contender Lee grabbed four front nine birdies when playing at his best in his 68 and has already shown he can go low here with his 65 in the opening round.
“I did bounce back really well (after Friday’s 73) which is what you’ve got to do,” Lee said.
“If the wind blows, it doesn’t matter how good you are. You need some luck because it was absolutely crazy at times.”
Smith, Yan Wei Liu and Kawamura will tee off in the final group on Sunday at 10.50am Qld time/11.50am AEDT.