England’s Oliver Wilson will take a three-shot lead into the final round of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, but world number one Rory McIlroy is one of the Englishman’s nearest challengers.
Wilson, who has finished runner-up nine times on the European Tour but lost his card in 2012, carded a third round of 65 at St Andrews to finish 15 under par.
But on a day of low scoring following a one-hour delay due to heavy overnight rain, McIlroy shot a 64 and Tommy Fleetwood a 62 on the Old Course to finish 12 under alongside French duo Alexander Levy (68) and Raphael Jacquelin (69).
Wilson is ranked 792nd in the world and a lowly 102nd on the Challenge Tour rankings, but a win on Sunday would be worth almost £500,000 and a two-year exemption on the European Tour.
“I’ll be nervous,” admitted Wilson, who played on the 2008 Ryder Cup team. “It’s a big day for me. Last year I got off to a great start here and kind of fizzled out.
“But the way I played the last two days, I left so many putts out there and I’m still at the top. So that gives me a lot of belief, but tomorrow will be a very different day. But that’s what we play golf for, to get in those situations and test yourself. I am looking forward to it.
“I’ve had the belief for a while, I’ve just needed a little bit of adrenaline to be honest. I’ve been flat all year for various reasons and to get the opportunity to come here and play is very nice and I guess I come to a tournament like this with a bit more dynamism.”
McIlroy found himself nine shots off the lead after struggling to an opening 73 at Carnoustie, one of the three courses used for the pro-am event.
But the four-time major winner bounced back with a 67 at Kingsbarns on Friday and carried on where he left off at St Andrews, a course he “hated” on his debut in 2005 but which is now a favourite and the place where he will defend the Open Championship next July.
McIlroy, who was an approximate eight under par in beating Rickie Fowler 5&4 in the singles in Europe’s Ryder Cup victory last week, birdied five holes in a row from the third and also picked up a shot on the ninth to be out in 30 and move into the lead.
That lead did not last long as Wilson chipped in for an eagle on the fifth and also birdied the sixth, but McIlroy responded with birdies on the 11th, 12th and 14th before dropping his only shot of the day on the 16th, where he needed two attempts to play out sideways from a fairway bunker.
“I got off to a really fast start and was trying to keep it going, and I sort of did through the turn, but the last four holes weren’t really what I wanted,” said McIlroy, who has finished second twice, third and eighth in five appearances in this event.
“But any time you shoot a score like that around St Andrews, you have to be happy. I got myself into contention going into tomorrow and my dad (his amateur partner) and I are going to get to play St Andrews on his 55th birthday tomorrow which will be a huge treat for both of us.
“Shooting a 59 never really crossed my mind. What did cross my mind was wanting to beat my previous best score round here of 63 (in the first round of the 2010 Open).”
McIlroy admitted to feeling “a little flat” on Thursday following his Ryder Cup heroics at Gleneagles, where he used a new driver but waited until this week to also switch his irons.
“I thought there might have been a bit of too much hoopla to put them in last week, along with the new driver, so I delayed those for a week,” McIlroy added.
Fleetwood matched McIlroy’s outward half of 30 and made it six birdies in a row on the 10th as he continued the excellent form which has produced three top-five finishes in his last five events.
“You didn’t see any scores like that when we were waiting in the clubhouse to get out there when it was just so cold and damp and windy,” Fleetwood said. “I just got on a really good spell in the middle of the round and I kept it going. My putting was just on fire really.
“They are courses that I love and I always like coming to Scotland. I’m always going to look forward to this event. It’s never a guarantee that you’re going to play well but it just so happens that I’ve had two good years in the last three.
“It’s nice to put another good round in and be competing again on a Sunday here, especially around the Old Course. It’s just brilliant.”