Jason Day has a hand on the Stonehaven Cup that he craves after the former world No. 1 surged to the lead at the Emirates Australian Open at The Australian today.
Day ground out a two-under par 69 in gusty conditions to reach 10-under and the outright lead, climbing to the top of the leaderboard on his own when he made consecutive birdies at the 14th and 15th holes after a string of 13 consecutive pars.
The way had been opened for him by overnight leader Lucas Herbert’s calamity on the par-three 11th hole, where he tugged his tee shot long and left into deep grass beside the green, causing a double bogey.
Two shots back at the time, Day’s par put him into the joint lead, and three birdies in the last five holes helped him to the outright lead by a shot from Herbert, the 21-year-old Australian who fought hard for an even-par 71.
They will play in the last pairing again tomorrow, with stronger winds forecast, and Day said he felt that anything in the 60s “will help seal the deal, hopefully’’.
Sweden’s Jonas Blixt and local favorite Matt Jones (seven-under) are only three shots from the lead at seven-under, while Queenslander Cameron Smith (six-under after a 69) is four back, while world No. 2 Jordan Spieth at two-under needs a miracle to defend his title.
It appears to be Day’s tournament to win or lose tomorrow, and the crowds around The Australian lapped up his first appearance in the Open since 2013.
For the third straight day big crowds lined the fairways and filled the amphitheatres as he teed off at lunchtime with the wind whipping up, conditions that made club selection tough. He had nothing going until the 14th, where an up-and-down from the trap at the par-five gave him his first birdie, then he hit a gorgeous iron shot for another at the 15th.
A bogey from the fairway trap at the 17th was a minor irritant, but at the 18th, with the fans filling the bank below the clubhouse, he hit a towering 325-metre drive and a short iron to six metres, leaving himself an eagle putt that he was too conservative on. A tap-in birdie was enough to ensure that he would go into tomorrow with his nose in front.
Herbert was not overcome by anxiety on the biggest stage he has seen, and outside of his poor tee shot at the 11th, played nicely. He was leading by two by the time he made a great birdie on the tough eighth hole, but gave back two shots at that short hole. He acknowledged that he had begun nervously, starting out with the lead.
“I don’t know how I slept last night,’’ he said. “It’s like trying to drink three cans of Red Bull and then trying to sleep. But after I made a couple of pars at the start it cooled the nerves and I was good to go.’’
Spieth made just three birdies for the day, but finished on a strong note with a beautiful chip from behind the 18th green to pick up a shot. The American barely holed a putt of any substance all day and his admission afterward that his score “most likely won’t be enough, which is disappointing’’, was significant.
As for Day, he embraced the pressure of taking a lead into the final round. He has won six of 13 tournaments that he led into the final round, but five of the past six. “That’s the thing, you have to learn to love the lead,’’ he said. “A lot of guys through some of their careers have learned to win from behind because there’s less pressure than being out in front. I mean, this is a great position to be in. You always learn from being in this position, no matter what the tournament is. I”d much rather be in this position than one stroke back.’’
A win would be something special for Day, who is well aware of the list of names that adorn the Stonehaven Cup as Australian Open champions. “You can look at it, the names on the cup, a lot of all of fame members, great players, a lot of future hall of fame members on that cup as well. It’d be nice to add my name to that list as well, but the hardest thing for me is you don’t want to get ahead of yourself.’’
He has not won an Open before and has not won any tournament since May, 2016 in Florida. His time may have come.
EMIRATES AUSTRALIAN OPEN SCOREBOARD
-10 Jason Day (Aust)
-9 Lucas Herbert (Aust)
-7 Matt Jones (Aust), Jonas Blixt (Sweden)
-6 Cameron Smith (Aust)