While his countryman Prayad Marksaeng continued to fight his cause in the last of the season’s Majors, the US PGA Championship at Oakland Hills Michigan, Thai star Thongchai Jaidee stayed on track for his first title in almost two years after holding onto a slender one-shot lead from an inspired Ben Leong of Malaysia at the Worldwide Selangor Masters on Friday.
The two-time Asian Tour number one stood at -14 for the tournament after playing 14 holes of his third round in five-under at Seri Selangor Golf Club, before play was suspended at 7.25pm due to fading light.
The in-form Leong, chasing a third straight victory on Malaysian soil, stayed hot on the leader’s heals with a superb run where he was seven-under through 15 holes, giving himself every chance of landing a first Asian Tour victory.
Malaysia’s Iain Steel, two under through 14 holes, was six shots off the pace in third position in the RM1 million (US$310,000) Asian Tour tournament.
The best clubhouse score belonged to Chinese Taipei veteran Lu Wen-teh, who carded a third round 65 for -7 on 206. He was among the 45 players who completed their rounds, while the remaining 21 will resume their third rounds on Saturday at 7.40am.
Thongchai was in complete control of his game but knows he must contend with a fired-up Leong. The Thai, bidding for his ninth Asian Tour victory, said: “I’m not looking at the leaderboard at all.
“I played very well again and putted very well. I enjoyed my day and I feel comfortable being in front. I’m going to keep to my game plan and try to make a lot of fairways and greens, which I’ve been doing so far this week.”
His two previous wins at the Malaysian Open in 2004 and 2005 were achieved during weeks which were disrupted by poor weather. Following yesterday’s tropical storm which meant that the second round was completed early this afternoon, Thongchai knows he has a battle on his hands.
“It’s very hard to start and stop but we’ve got to try to deal with it,” said the Thai.
A 12-foot birdie got his round going and birdies on all of the three par-fives saw him keep his nose in front of Malaysia’s 22-year-old Leong. Thongchai nearly aced the 12th hole but his 6-iron hit the pin and stayed out.
Leong was in inspirational form once again as he turned in 33 with four birdies and a bogey before narrowing the gap on Thongchai with a burst of four birdies in five holes before play was suspended.
“I played really well today. I didn’t hit it great but my putting was spot on which made a difference. I made an eight foot par putt on the 10th which was the key as it kept my momentum going. That boosted my game and then I had three birdies in a row,” said Leong.
“I was telling myself to get to 10 or 11 under but I’m doing better than that. I hope to get to 18 or 19 under by the end of the final round.”
Leong believes his two wins in Malaysian events over the past two weeks have set him up for a possible career breakthrough on the Asian Tour, for which he has won the Qualifying School in the past two years.
“I never expected to play so well after two good weeks before this event. Good days don’t come so often but I’m enjoying it now. I’m still very much in contention and I’m looking forward to tomorrow.
“I was focused on my game and I didn’t pay much attention to what was happening on the leaderboard. I only realised my position when I came back into the clubhouse and was quite surprised to be so close to Thongchai,” smiled Leong.
The US-based Steel, who is of Malaysian-Scottish parentage, knows he must narrow the gap when he completes the remaining four holes of his third round on Saturday morning if he is to end his title drought on the Asian Tour.
“It was a steady round and nothing great. I didn’t hit it close and I did not have many birdie opportunities,” said Steel.
“It looks like a two-horse race. If I can get a couple of more birdies first thing in the morning tomorrow, then maybe I can aim for a title charge in the final round.”
China has only two representatives in the competition, Wu Kangchun who is currently lying 29th at the end of the third round, and Wu Ashun, who is 37th.
(David Ferguson from China.org.cn August 9, 2008)