Twelve months ago Marc Leishman waited around to share in Cameron Smith’s victory; this time he wants to be the one throwing the Australian PGA Championship party.
The two highest-ranked players in the field have opened up a seven-shot gap on the rest with defending champion Smith possessing a three-shot buffer over his close friend and nearest rival.
On a day where few challengers emerged from the pack, Smith compiled a bogey-free 5-under par round of 67, the equal best score of the third round, to take a stranglehold of the trophy still currently in his possession.
The Joe Kirkwood Cup is a piece of silverware that Leishman desperately craves but he will have to produce something out of the ordinary to wrest it away from a young man on the verge of becoming Australia’s best male golfer.
Using the lessons he learnt from playing with Leishman at the World Cup just a week ago, Smith piloted his way around the RACV Royal Pines layout without incident, registering birdies on the fifth, ninth, 12th, 13th and 16th holes.
Even his ‘bad’ shots resulted in birdies as Leishman endured a frustrating day with the putter, not making a birdie until the eighth hole of the day before ultimately signing for a 3-under 69.
Tied for third four shots behind Leishman are 2016 champion Harold Varner III and ACT veteran Matthew Millar, who along with Smith and Braden Becker posted 67s as the likes of Jake McLeod (75), Dimitrios Papadatos (74) and Matt Jager (73) fell back in the pack.
Conscious of the task ahead of him in chasing Smith down, Leishman says he will call on previous come-from-behind wins on the PGA Tour to apply some pressure early and put Smith to the test.
“I need to get off to a pretty good start; not as in the first two or three holes, but the first nine,” Leishman said.
“I need to have a good front nine, at least make him think about it.
“It's hard to win from the front, it's also hard to win from behind. It's hard to win from anywhere.
“I've just got to do what I can do, worry about trying to shoot a good score and see if he plays well or not.
“I'm expecting him to, so I'm thinking I'm going to need a really good score.
“I've come from behind before, so hopefully I can do it again tomorrow.”
Displaying a maturity in his game that belies his looks, Smith has made just the one bogey since finishing his opening round with dropped shots in each of his last two holes.
He has been content to let those mounting the chase make the mistakes through either carelessness or over-aggressiveness and shows no signs of relinquishing a lead that he has at least partly owned since early in the second round.
“That's the position you want to be in every week. You want to play against the best players in the world and ‘Leish’ is one of those guys,” Smith said of his final group showdown with Leishman.
“I'm looking forward to a good battle tomorrow with Leish.
“I'm just going to try and go out there tomorrow and do what I have been doing.
“The last couple of days has been probably some of the best golf I've ever played and feeling really confident.
“Just looking forward to tomorrow.”
Although he will begin the final round seven shots adrift of Smith, Varner hasn’t given up hope of applying some pressure of his own, his third round of 1-under 71 featuring three straight birdies from holes 8-10 and a costly double bogey at the par-5 15th.
“You've got to keep giving yourself opportunities no matter what, you can't quit,” said Varner, who hasn’t finished worse than sixth in three previous visits to Royal Pines.
“That's just the MO, you've got to do that.
“The last year helped me out a lot because I just had a bad attitude and I think I was like 5 or 6-under after 10 and just pissed it away.
“You just can't do that.
“I still like my chances though.
“I just need to give myself 18 looks and I think something good will happen.”
The side story to Sundays final round is the race to top the ISPS HANDA PGA Tour of Australasia Order of Merit.
Despite a disappointing third round that finished with three straight bogeys, Jake McLeod remains in pole position to claim the one-year European Tour exemption and World Golf Championships starts with Dimitrios Papadatos and Anthony Quayle needing to win the tournament to take over top spot.
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