Hong Kong Open: England’s Aaron Rai wary of final-round jitters as he takes six-shot lead into fourth day
- The 23-year-old shoots two-under 68 for an overall total of 16-under 194
- Compatriots Tommy Fleetwood and Matthew Fitzpatrick are on 10 under
England’s Aaron Rai had missed the weekend at Fanling last year but he was reminded of what could happen to the golfer who had led for the first three days of the tournament.
The 23-year-old Rai opened up a six-shot lead after the third round of the US$2 million Honma Hong Kong Open on Saturday – a much more comfortable cushion than SSP Chawrasia’s one-stroke lead after three rounds of the 2017 tournament.
India’s Chawrasia looked dominant for the first three days but finished seventh as Australian Wade Ormsby stole the title.
“I had the weekend off last year and stayed away from the golf,” said Rai after his two-under 68 gave him a three-round score of 16-under 194 – six ahead of a surging Tommy Fleetwood and Matthew Fitzpatrick.
"This is magnificent."
Already leading by five, then Aaron Rai does this. pic.twitter.com/vZ9f38VYGC
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) November 24, 2018
“It’s that type of course where that can happen. It’s one thing being positive and saying, you know, tomorrow is exactly the same but it can happen around this course. This is a tricky course and you have to keep the ball in play, and if you miss a few shots that could certainly happen.”
Fleetwood bounded into contention after his four-under 66 gave him 10-under overall with Fitzpatrick shooting two-under 68. Also in the mix going into the final round are former US Masters winner Sergio Garcia, of Spain, and Australia’s Jason Scrivener.
Garcia shot the best round of the day of six-under 64 to join Scrivener (67) at nine under. Thai veteran Thongchai Jaidee and France’s Victor Perez are on eight under over three days.
Rai had looked unflappable over the first two rounds but, for the first time in the tournament had to prove himself under pressure. That came as early as the par-five third in which he scrambled a par while Fitzpatrick hit eagle and Hyowon Park grabbed a birdie.
He bounced back with a birdie on the next hole. In the ninth, Rai dropped his first shot of the tournament after 45 holes with a bogey. But he fought back again by picking up a shot on the 10th.
“Yes, very pleased with the way I fought back,” he said. “It was pretty steady throughout those moments after making par on three and dropping a shot on nine and small moments within the round. I was very pleased overall with how those two things happened after that.”
Rai also dropped a shot on the 18th when he drove into the trees but a six-shot lead with one round to play puts him in the driving seat.
“Of course, nothing is ever done until it’s done, and 18 holes is a lot of golf,” said Rai, who has won three times on the Challenge Tour. “So a six-shot lead, a 10-shot lead, anything can happen, so you have to be aware of that.
“But again, something which felt a little bit tricky today was still being able to play in the same way but just be smart at the same time, and it felt a little bit too much on the back foot. So, probably I’ll go back to the hotel and think about how to approach it.”
Despite being in contention, Fitzpatrick was unhappy with his round, knowing he could have put Rai under more pressure.
“I played really, really well tee to green,” he said. “I’m just really disappointed to only shoot two under, really, when I had nine chances inside 15 feet and I think I holed two, maybe three.
“When you’re giving yourself chances like this and the greens are as good as this, you have to take advantage of it.
“Particularly being six behind at the start of the day, obviously I wanted to make a big charge and try and catch up. Sort of got off to a good start and just couldn’t make the putts coming in.”
The leading flight is likely to be an all-English affair with Rai, Fleetwood and Fitzpatrick teeing off last.
Fleetwood, the 2017 Race to Dubai winner, said it will be tough catching Rai but he will focus on his own game.
“Whatever Aaron does, you can’t do anything about it,” he said. “For me, just keep doing the same things and try and put one last good round together and then go home and enjoy some rest. Looking forward to it. One last Sunday of golf.”