Brandon Stone leads four-time Alfred Dunhill Championship winner Charl Schwartzel by three strokes heading into the final round at Leopard Creek on Sunday, and it is not outside the realms of possibility that the young SA Open champion could break Schwartzel’s record winning score at the course adjoining the Kruger National Park.
Stone fired an outstanding six-under-par 66 in the third round on Saturday, following equally brilliant rounds of 67 and 66 on the first two days, to go to 17-under-par for the tournament.
Schwartzel won the 2012 Alfred Dunhill Championship, his second title in Malelane, with a 24-under-par total of 264, so if Stone completes a wonderful week by going eight-under in the final round, he will surely claim the record low score as well as the Leopard Creek crown.
Schwartzel began the back nine with four birdies in a row on his way to posting an excellent 68 on Saturday, leaving him on 14-under-par, but it’s not just the former Masters champion Stone has to worry about.
Keith Horne, a South African with extensive Asian Tour experience, is also on 14-under after a 67 on Saturday, along with Chris Hanson, an Englishman in his second full year on the European Tour, who shot a 68.
Frenchman Benjamin Hebert, on 12-under-par, and Scotland’s David Drysdale, who fired the low round of the tournament with a 64 to go to 11-under-par, have an outside chance of catching Stone.
The 23-year-old winner of the 2016 South African Open only finished 50th on the European Tour order of merit and was especially disappointed to finish 69th, on 22-over-par, at the Nedbank Golf Challenge at Sun City last month.
But the seer-like sports psychology skills of Theo Bezuidenhout seem to have helped as Stone returned from a 59th-place finish at the Tour Championship by finishing as runner-up in last weekend’s Cape Town Open, and is now in superb form at Leopard Creek.
“My process has stayed the same although I have been working hard on my game. It’s not that I felt I was playing badly, I just wasn’t playing that well, I wasn’t scoring well.
“I maybe had a bit of a bad attitude, I felt I was getting lots of bad breaks, but I had a very good session with Theo Bezuidenhout before the Cape Town Open and he told me to look at my golf from the perspective that I’ve had a great year and anything else now is a bonus.
“I took it to heart and I’ve accepted that I will hit bad shots and there will be bad breaks. I haven’t tried to reinvent the wheel, I’ve just put new tyres on it!” Stone said.
Stone began the day one stroke ahead of Schwartzel and started hot by hitting his approach on the par-four first hole to a foot for birdie.
Schwartzel, on the other hand, looked like someone struggling to shake off rust. He birdied the fourth, but Stone went on a run of three successive birdies to stretch his lead.
The defending champion could reach the turn in level-par, five behind Stone, after a bogey at the eighth, when his tee-shot went left and below the lip of the bunker.
“I took a long time to get going, but after the turn I hit some fairways and that gave me more birdie chances, which I converted,” Schwartzel said.
Schwartzel has not exactly been on happy pills this week, but even he was smiling as he made four successive birdies from the 10th hole, and even a bogey on the par-three 16th, his tee-shot just going too far left and hitting rocks before rebounding into the water, seemed to not faze him.
“The nice thing is that a final round is a different kettle of fish, it’s time to get stuck in and grind it out. But Brandon is playing beautiful golf and I know I will have to bring some good stuff to beat him,” Schwartzel said.
Horne was another who piled on the birdies on the back nine, with four in a row from the 11th, ensuring that Stone will not have too much leeway on Sunday.
“I love my workplace, but it’s going to be a very tough last 18 holes and I’ll need to stay in the moment. Charl has accomplished more than me in his career at the moment, but I’m definitely not just going to lie down. He’s a roadblock on the path; Charl, Keith and Chris are all great players,” Stone said.
Stone married some magnificent driving of the ball to some brilliant putting, especially some clutch par-saves, none more so than the 25-footer he sank on the 16th, after his tee-shot went over the green.
And then on the last he had some good fortune when his errant approach to the island green was going left and towards the water, before it hit a tree and went straight down on to the fringe of the green, from where he saved par.
Horne has roared up the leaderboard with successive rounds of 66 and 67 and is delighted his good golf is being rewarded.
“I played really well on the front nine so I was disappointed to have two drops, both from three-putts, on the fifth and eighth holes. But when I got four birdies in a row on the back nine, I felt I got what I deserved,” Horne said.
“I have struggled with the putter all year and it was a bit shaky again today – I didn’t miss too many greens, but especially on the last three holes, I should have made one or two birdies. If the putter behaves in the final round, I’m sure I’ll be in it.”
The chasers all have a chance, but at the moment the tournament looks Stone’s to lose.