When the sun set on the third round in the 2018 NGC, only six players were in with winning chances.
In many ways, given what we’ve seen this week at Gary Player Country Club, it’s Sergio Garcia’s tournament to lose. The Spaniard took a two-shot lead over home favourite Louis Oosthuizen into the final round, with Thomas Detry, Lee Westwood and Mikko Korhonen three back and Ross Fisher four back.
For Darren Fichardt, who is alone in seventh on four-under-par 212, to win, it’s going to take something truly extraordinary from him, and a spectacular collapse from the man who’s led every round so far.
Garcia added a second successive 71 to add to his opening 64 to be on 10-under 206. It was the 10th successive sub-par round by the 2017 Masters champion and should he extend that streak to 11 on Sunday, then one can see how tough it will be for him to be beaten.
Only two shots, one might say, although it’s equally true that after two rounds Garcia was only one shot ahead, so in effect, he stretched his lead on a ‘moving day’ which was anti-climactic in terms of shaking up the top of the leaderboard.
Let’s run through the permutations. If Garcia shoots 71, Oosthuizen must go 69, Detry, Westwood and Korhonen 68s and Fisher 67 to merely force a playoff.
If Garcia shoots 70, Oosthuizen must go 68, Detry, Westwood and Korhonen 67 and Fisher 66. And if Garcia posts a 69, which is a number he has in his sights, Oosthuizen must go 67, Detry, Westwood and Korhonen 66 and Fisher 65, simply to take the action to extra holes.
Consider this too … Garcia’s 64 on Thursday is the low round of the week and the next lowest is only Detry’s and Dylan Frittelli’s 66s on Friday.
Every golfer has spoken of how difficult the course is playing. It’s not the type of course that can be bullied and you have to try to keep the ball in the right places, keep hitting fairways and find the right spots on the greens which are getting quicker under the sun. Putting is devilishly difficult.
Westwood, the ‘old man’ on the leaderboard at the age of 45, says in many aspects the course reminds him of Augusta. ‘It’s a difficult place to score low and you have to be patient, you can’t attack the pins and sometimes you’re going to find yourself in the wrong place.’
After 36 holes he said that ‘no lead is big enough going into the final round, it’s a course where you can drop two shots in the blink of an eye.’
That will give the chasing pack, led by Oosthuizen, hope and there remains the chance of late drama given how difficult the closing holes have been playing all week. Again, the 17th was third toughest on day three, with the 18th the fourth toughest. And, again, the opening four holes ranked among the easiest on the day, which suggests there will be a few red numbers early on before a few late dropped shots.
Oosthuizen was four shots back heading into the final hole, where he made birdie and Garcia bogey. That was a huge moment in front of a sun-baked crowd baying for home success.
But Garcia still holds all the aces at this casino resort.
‘I know the course is going to be playing tough again,’ he said. ‘I’m going to go out and try to shoot under par like I’ve done all three days. I think I’m going to see if I can shoot below 70 and see if that’s good enough.’
One suspects, given what we’ve seen through 54 holes, it might well be more than enough …