Hopes of a drought-breaking local victory at the New Zealand Open appear to rest on the shoulders of three seasoned pros, a rookie, and a relative no-name who knows The Hills better than anyone.
On a day when there was plenty of movement, several Kiwis positioned themselves to win the national open and become the first New Zealander to do so since Mahal Pearce.
Leading the charge heading into the fourth round of the $850,000 PGA Tour of Australasia event is Wellington pro Mark Brown, who gets another shot for glory just 15 months after he led the national open with 18 holes to play and couldn't pull it off.
Brown is at 11-under par, one shot behind the little-known leader from Australia, 22-year-old Dimi Papadatos.
Alongside Brown is second round co-leader Richard Lee, the Auckland pro who had a steady two-under 70 today to move to 11-under. Australian Ashley Hall, a regular on the second-tier Web.com Tour in the US, is fourth at 10-under par.
Wellington left-hander Gareth Paddison, who had a six-under 66 to get to nine-under par, the same tally as rookie Tauranga professional Kieran Muir (67) and the local pro at The Hills, Craig Palmer, who fired in nine birdies in a seven-under 65 yesterday.
Also not out of the tournament, if they could go low today, is Aucklander Ryan Fox - with father Grant on the bag - and Te Anau's David Klein.
Fox closed with three birdies in four holes to get to eight-under after a 69 yesterday, the same score as Klein.
Brown started the day four shots back at five-under par and didn't get going yesterday till the back nine at The Hills. But when he did, it was spectacular.
The former European Tour winner is arguably the best ball-striker and smoothest swinger in New Zealand but his putter hasn't always behaved.
It did yesterday, as he charged with an eagle and three birdies from the 13th to 16th holes, only to make a really bad swing at the par-five 17th and walk off with double bogey. Still, he bounced back with a birdie at 18, with a great approach from the right rough, and that's given him plenty of confidence.
"Mentally more than anything, to prove I can put a rubbish shot, rubbish hole behind me and knuckle down," Brown said.
"I'd rather be two ahead than two behind but I'm there. I felt a few more nerves than I normally feel all week but that's a positive for me, to feel that excitement.
"Hopefully (today), I'll need to go and shoot something similar."
Brown said, as Paddison did earlier, the approach wouldn't change today. It's all about playing well tee to green and giving themselves chances on the green.
"These days, if you want to win tournaments you have to hole putts, there's no two ways around that," Brown said.
"I putted beautifully the hole back nine, holed some good length putts, too. It's the best I've felt all year."
Lee didn't rate his round today, and reckons he hasn't played that well all week. But the Japan Tour pro, 40, is a seasoned veteran and is capable of going low, as he did when shooting 59 at the 2010 Charles Tour's Tauranga Open.
He also noted that when he won on the Asian Tour in 2005, he didn't play well.
"I am struggling with my ball striking and I would love to go out there and tear it apart. I feel like a low number is there for me," he said.
"I normally putt really well so if I get going it is there. I'd like to hit a few more greens and give myself some more chances."
Papadatos is unknown but has some form playing in the spotlight at big tournaments. He did so at the $2 million Perth International last year, playing alongside American Bo Van Pelt and Dane Soren Hansen, and finished third.
"I did quite well so there is no reason why I can't do it again," he said.
- Sunday Star Times
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