Graeme McDowell birdied two of his last three holes to give the fans hope of a home victory at the Irish Open on Sunday at Fota Island.
McDowell's late flourish in front of a Saturday crowd of 28,173 gave him a third-round, two-under-par 69 leaves him just two shots behind leader Mikko Ilonen of Finland going into Sunday's final round in Cork.
Ilonen, who has been in front since the first round, when he shot a seven-under 64,, stayed ahead of the field with a birdie at the last for a third-round 69 that put him into a one-stroke lead advantage over Englishman Danny Willett.
Willett bettered the Finn's course record with a bogey-free eight-under round of 63 that featured an eight-iron hole in one at the 165-yard par-three seventh hole he described as a “slam dunk”.
Seeking his second European Tour victory, the 26-year-old Yorkshireman birdied the last three holes and will tee off at 12:30pm Irish time with Ilonen in Sunday's leading group.
The Finn said he was happy to avoided McDowell in the final pairing, who would have attracted the vast majority of the home support.
“Playing with Willett will help. Graeme will be in front of us. It will be the same tomorrow as today. I've been leading all the way this week and been handling the pressure of the lead pretty well so far, so I'm expecting not to do anything else tomorrow.”
Just ahead of them in the penultimate pairing, McDowell will be hoping to pile on the pressure in pursuit of his first Irish Open success and in the process end a five-year wait for a home victory and a 68-year-wait for an Ulster win in the championship.
“It would be special in many levels,” said McDowell, daring to dream of a victory on Sunday. “It would be a kickstarter for my season. It would be a big boost in the World Rankings and Ryder Cup rankings.
“But most importantly, to win here in front of my home fans, with everything that's gone on in Irish golf lately, with The Open Championship announcement (for Portrush), Rory (McIlroy) and his Olympic announcement this week, and just generally what's been going on in Irish golf.
I think it would be fun to do the biz tomorrow. But there some quality players there, just got to go and control my ball and we'll count them up at the end and see what happens.
McDowell lies on 10 under in third, a shot ahead of Romain Wattel of France, England's Matthew Baldwin, Paraguay's Fabrizio Zanotti and Kristoffer Broberg of Sweden.
His fellow Ulsterman Gareth Maybin is next-best Irishman, on eight under following a 69 with Padraig Harrington unable to close the gap to the leaders after a level-par 71 in front of a huge gallery of Irish fans.
"It was a strange day, I couldn't get anything happening,” three-time major winner Harrington said.
"I'm attacking all the time, I always do, but at six under par I need a very big day.
"I'm not really doing any spectacular, it's harder when you're not giving the crowds anything to cheer about. And that's a pity but maybe I'm saving them all for tomorrow. I'll go out there and try to win. What use is 10th to me in the Irish Open? I won't be remembered for that. But these things turn around and I'm waiting for it to happen for me.”
West Waterford amateur Gary Hurley had made a big impression with his second-round 66 on Friday, capped off with a 55-foot putt at his last, the ninth hole.
Alas, the Paddy Harrington scholar at NUI Maynooth paid a price for his efforts on Saturday, a triple-bogey seven at the opening hole signalling a long day that ended with a 10-over-par 81 that leaves him on six over par.
“It was up and down,” a dejected Hurley said. “I got off to a bad start and did really well to get back to level with the eagle on four and the birdie on five. I hit two good shots to eight and it kicked left of the green into the hazard. I played it but ended up taking triple again.
“That just killed me mentally. I tried hard but I just couldn’t commit to any shots. It was so hard just to think properly and commit to anything. I was just vague even over the lines of putts. I got it back together for a few holes but it kept coming back to my mind.
“I just got in a bad mindset and I was trying to tell myself it was all right. It was tough with so many clapping and cheering to encourage me. It was still a good learning experience and hopefully I can do better tomorrow. Yesterday took a lot out of me and today as well. Hopefully I can take a lot out of it and do better next time."
Irish Open Round 4 Tee Times from Golf and Course