Cameron Smith’s British Open dream threatens to turn into desperation after a deflating and dismal third round at St Andrews.
Australia’s great prospect saw his two-stroke halfway lead reduced to a four-stroke deficit with a frustrating 73 of one over par on Saturday.
Smith’s round was the worst of any top-20 player and left the world No. 6 having to play catch-up on Championship Sunday.
Pre-tournament favorite Rory McIlroy and young Norwegian Viktor Hovland passed Smith with a pair of 66s to 16 under, giving the co-leaders a four-shot buffer on the chasing pack.
Smith will play with Cameron Young in the penultimate group on Sunday after the American’s 71 also left him at 12 under.
No player has ever claimed the Claret Jug on more than four strokes entering the final round of the 29 editions of the Open at the birthplace of golf.
That at least leaves Smith hopeful after his chances seemed to slip away on the back nine on Saturday.
Disaster struck when he doubled down the par-four 13th to drop five strokes behind.
What looked to be an excellent drive ran, ran and ran to within half a yard of a fairway pot.
With no position, he was forced to play his approach out of the bunker and fired his ball into the gorse.
Smith then needed two more shots to find the green before missing his bogey putt.
But a desperately needed rebound birdie at 15 and Road Hole problems for McIlroy at No 17 kept the Queenslander in the hunt.
Adam Scott is the only other Aussie in contention after a fighting round of 70 left the former world No. 1 six shots off the pace at nine under in a tie for eighth.
Anthony Quayle posted a lovely third round 68 to move to five under and 24th joint with fellow Australians Min Woo Lee and Lucas Herbert, whose hopes were dashed by a disappointing 73.
Brad Kennedy (72) is another back shot, with Jason Scrivener two under after a second straight 71.
Smith set the tone for his flat round with an unusual three-putt bogey on the very first hole.
On Friday, after making an unofficial PGA Tour record 255 feet of putts, Smith couldn’t get his magic wand to work in the third round.
He couldn’t buy a putt and only birdied one in 21 holes, from Friday’s 10th to Saturday’s 13th.
The dismal comeback was a far cry from the 11 birdies he compiled en route to setting the new 36-hole Open scoring record at St Andrews in the opening two rounds.
A missed eighth-foot birdie on the 18th typified Smith’s frustrations on the greens and had the usually unfazed star cursing as the Claret Jug continued to slip away from his grip.
“The golf gods were not with me today. I felt like I hit a lot of good putts and didn’t really lose anything,” Smith said.
“I stayed pretty well in there and hit the ball pretty well. It’s probably actually the best I’ve hit all week. I had a lot of opportunities, but no putts were falling, which was quite frustrating.
Rory McIlroy has complete confidence in his ability to end an eight-year major drought in the best possible way by winning the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews.
Five days after describing the Open victory at the Old Course as golf’s ‘holy grail’, McIlroy will take a share of the lead in the final round with Norwegian Ryder Cup teammate and playing partner Viktor Hovland after a 66 under par 66.
McIlroy bolstered his bid to end an eight-year major drought and become the first European winner at St Andrews since Nick Faldo in 1990 with five birdies and a bright eagle from a bunker on 10.
Only a bogey on the famous 17th ‘Road Hole’ prevented the Northern Irishman from holding an outright lead from Hovland, chasing his first major title, also posting a 66 to join the Northern Irishman at 16 under.
“We fed very well,” McIlroy said.
“We both put ourselves in a great position for tomorrow.
“I know if I play my game I can shoot scores like this on this course and I have to do it one more day and then I’ll give you all the superlatives and everything if that happens.”
Smith and American Cameron Young will start the final round 12 under, four strokes behind, after rounds of 73 and 71 respectively, with world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler and South Korean Si Woo Kim one stroke further.
Two-time major winner Dustin Johnson is six shots behind a 71, with Tommy Fleetwood and US Open winner Matt Fitzpatrick at nine under, alongside Australian Adam Scott.
McIlroy lifted the Claret Jug in 2014 and won his fourth American PGA major a month later, but hasn’t won one of the game’s biggest titles since.
Augusta National co-founder and three-time Open champion Bobby Jones says a player’s career wouldn’t be complete without lifting the Claret Jug on the Old Course.
And while McIlroy doesn’t believe that’s strictly true, the world No. 2 is well aware of the importance of winning the oldest major title in the land of golf.
“It’s the holy grail of our sport,” McIlroy said in his pre-tournament press conference.
Asked about the importance of winning on Sunday, he added: “It would mean everything because of what I’ve been through for the past few years, trying to get fifth.”
Even an error-free front nine on 33 gave McIlroy a shot behind an inspired Hovland, who had birdied four in a row from third to take over from Smith at the top of the standings.
However, McIlroy then emerged from a bunker before the 10th green for a stunning eagle to pass over the lead, before Hovland kept his cool to birdie the same hole.
McIlroy found the green in two on the 614-yard 14th to set up another birdie and take the lead outright, only to then fire his approach to the dreaded 17th over the green and over the wall.
The resulting bogey sent McIlroy back alongside Hovland, who brilliantly saved par just over the green, with both players then birdie on the latter.
HOW THE AUSSIES ARE SUCCESSFUL IN THE THIRD ROUND OF THE BRITISH OPEN:
204 (67-64-73): Cameron Smith – tied for third
207 (72-65-70): Adam Scott – T8e
211 (74-69-68): Anthony Quayle – T24e
211 (69-69-73): Min Woo Lee – T24
211 (70-68-73): Lucas Herbert – T24e
212 (68-72-72): Brad Kennedy – T35e
214 (72-71-71): Jason Scrivener – T55e