David Howell has his eyes on a European Tour scoring record as he bids to win the low-scoring TCL Classic on the Chinese resort island of Hainan.
Howell leads the tournament by one shot from his Australian playing partner Andrew Buckle after completing three rounds with a 23-under-par-total of 193, the Weybridge-based golfer adding a 66 to previous rounds of 64 and 63 at the Yalong Bay Golf Club.
That total saw him equal Ernie Els’ European Tour record for 54 holes – set at the Johnnie Walker Classic in Perth, Australia in 2003.
A seven-under-par round of 65 in tomorrow’s final round would see Howell eclipse by the South African’s 72-hole mark from the same tournament.
Howell, seeking his second win in successive visits to China, originally felt a score of 25 under would be good enough to claim the title but he has now revised his estimate.
“We talked about that at lunch yesterday, reassessed and thought 30 under would be nearer the number,” said Howell, who defeated Tiger Woods at the HSBC Champions tournament in Shanghai on his previous appearance in China last November.
“That was my goal starting this morning, not only to win the tournament. But that is a pretty meteoric number to get for four rounds of golf.
“You are not going to get many opportunities in life to do that so 65 tomorrow would give me a chance of winning the tournament.”
Howell’s third round lacked the fluency he showed on the opening two days. Despite opening with a birdie at the 570-yard par-five he went on a run of six straight pars before picking up another shot at the eighth.
His round really kicked into life, however, when he sunk a 40-foot eagle putt on the 13th and followed it with back-to-back birdies on the 16th and 17th.
“It was a little bit like hard work, to be honest,” said Howell.
“Andrew played fantastically well and put the pressure on me. He wasn’t going to let up. He played beautifully round the front nine and I just didn’t get going.
“All in all it was a bit of a struggle. I said to myself ‘The first two days had been so easy really, just stay patient and try and shoot 67’, and I managed to beat that by one in the end, so I’m delighted with a 66.”
Buckle, meanwhile, stayed on course to surpass his best performance on the European Tour just two weeks after finishing runner-up to Simon Dyson in the Indonesia Open.
“I played very well and ended up with 65 so I am happy,” said the Queenslander.
“I was just trying to concentrate on my own game and add the scores up at the end of the day.
“It gives you confidence if you are playing well. I will be playing with David tomorrow. We had a great day today, very enjoyable and I just need to keep doing what I am doing.”
Despite the gap in experience between himself and Howell, the 23-year-old saw no reason why he should be intimidated by his more illustrious opponent in the final round.
“I knew he beat Tiger in Shanghai but I didn’t realise he was world number 14,” said Buckle.
“That’s impressive but those sort of things don’t worry me, or I try not to let them worry me – which is not easy to do sometimes. I will just try to worry about what I am doing.”
Sweden’s Johan Edfors is in third place, a shot behind Buckle, while Nick Dougherty hauled himself back into contention with a round of 64 to leave himself four shots off the pace.
Defending champion Paul Casey was eight behind Howell while Ryder Cup team-mate Paul McGinley was a shot further back.