Stenson makes early move towards Open leaders
Back-to-back birdies take the Swede to within three shots of the overnight leaders
Former Open champion Henrik Stenson made an early move on day three of The Open but he was not in isolation as the pack behind the overnight leaders began to bunch up at Royal Portrush.
The Swede, winner in 2016, should have been even better than the five under he had reached after four holes after missing an eight-foot putt for eagle on the second.
However, a birdie there to follow one at his opening hole moved him within three of leaders Shane Lowry, of Ireland, and American JB Holmes.
South Koreans Sang Hyun Park and Ben An, Webb Simpson, Stenson’s playing partner, Matt Kuchar, Spain’s Irish Open winner a fortnight ago Jon Rahm and Ryder Cup star Alex Noren and 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett also all got themselves to five under.
With conditions expected to improve later in the afternoon with the wind less gusty it meant more low scoring was likely, leaving Lowry and Holmes knowing they could not afford a slow start if they wanted to maintain their advantage at the top of the leaderboard.
Graeme McDowell, Portrush-born and the only remaining Northern Irishman left in the field, produced a good finish to card a three-under 68 and lift himself to two under for the tournament.
After a birdie, his fourth of the day, at the 17th he hit a brilliant approach at the last to three feet to briefly move himself into the top-30 having been in the third group out in the morning having just made Friday’s cut on one over.
Defending champion Francesco Molinari, also out early, failed to find the spark in his round and did not manage his only birdie until the 14th, eventually signing for a one-over 72 to drop to two over.
“Obviously I would have liked to have a better defence of my title but at the same time you realise that you don’t have the trophy but your name is still going to be on it,” said the Italian.
“So it’s bittersweet for now, that’s all I can think. It’s not easy, obviously, especially the first time and having played well in other majors this year, obviously you come in with the high expectations.
Obviously I would have liked to have a better defence of my title Francesco Molinari
“But you’ve seen it with Rory (McIlroy) and other guys. Golf is a funny game so even if you’re playing well, the mental side is still the biggest priority.”
With Molinari surrendering his hold on the Claret Jug he would love nothing more than close friend Tommy Fleetwood, with whom he struck up such a devastating partnership at last year’s Ryder Cup, to break his major drought.
Fleetwood is in the penultimate group out alongside Lee Westwood as they look to strengthen their chances of becoming the first Englishman to win the Open since Nick Faldo in 1992.
“It would make a good story for you guys to have the two of us, one next to each other, on the Claret Jug,” added Molinari.
“I’ll cheer him on and hopefully he can get it done. There’s still a long way but he’s there with a chance.
“If it’s not this week, I think it’s coming pretty soon.”