Grace stays on top at Dunhill Links, leads by four heading to final round

Branden Grace at the Dunhill Links Championship
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Ernie Els says his South African protege Branden Grace is good enough to win a major.
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PGA.com news services

Series: European Tour

Published: Saturday, October 06, 2012 | 4:48 p.m.

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Branden Grace will take a four-stroke advantage into the final round of the Dunhill Links Championship at St. Andrews.

The South African carded a 3-under-par 69 on Saturday at Carnoustie -- much the toughest of the three courses used for the celebrity pro-am -- to move to 20 under, and his nearest challenger will be Thorbjorn Olesen of Denmark.

"I didn't play particularly well. There were loose shots here and there, but this course mentally does it to you," said Grace. "I kept fighting, got it around and finishing with a birdie is a bonus.

"Everybody calls it 'Car-nasty' (a name given during the 1999 British Open, when the rough was some of the worst ever and a 19-year-old Sergio Garcia finished last on 30 over) and it showed you still have to hit good shots," he added. "I've dreamt of picking any trophy up on that bridge on the 18th (at St. Andrews), so maybe this time tomorrow it happens."

"He's good enough to win an Open -- he's that good," said Ernie Els, the current Claret Jug holder, as the 24-year-old continued to dominate an event he has led since his opening 60 at Kingsbarns on Thursday.

Even with a 65 at St. Andrews, Els is 12 shots adrift. But seeing another product of his Ernie Els Foundation blossom so spectacularly this season fills him with pride.

Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel have already won majors, and since coming through his fifth visit to the European Tour qualifying school last December, Grace has won four times and leapt inside the world's top 50 from outside the top 300.

"I remember winning the (2007) South African Open and he was top amateur," said Els, who lost to him in a playoff for the Volvo Champions title in January. "He's always been a quality player and he's a world contender now."

Els finds it no surprise that the Pretoria-based Grace is excelling this particular week.

"His game is so suited for links golf," said Els. "He hits those low bullet drives and he can really putt."

Grace didn’t have everything go his way in the third round. After a hat trick of birdies, he double-bogeyed the 472-yard 15th, but as he birdied the 18th hole, Olesen double-bogeyed the 17th at Kingsbarns.

Sweden’s Fredrik Andersson and Alex Noren are tied for third, while Scotland’s Stephen Gallacher, whose only European Tour victory in nearly 400 starts came in this event eight years ago, produced a spectacular finish to be in the group on 14 under.

Gallacher sank a "totally blind" 200-yard 5-iron for an eagle-2 at Kingsbarns' 17th and then birdied the last for a 65.

Two of the three returning Ryder Cup players made the cut, but it will disappoint locals that the one to miss out was Paul Lawrie.

A 68 for 3 under at St. Andrews was never likely to be enough for him. "I putted like an idiot," he said afterward.

Martin Kaymer's 69 took him to 6 under and Peter Hanson matched that round to squeeze through on 5 under.

Although Jose Maria Olazabal's four assistants -- Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley, Thomas Bjorn and Miguel Angel Jimenez -- all failed to make it, American Dustin Johnson, winner of all of his three matches at the Ryder Cup, is alongside Kaymer thanks to a 67.

Olympic swimming great Michael Phelps, playing with pro-partner Paul Casey, failed to make the cut. On Friday, Phelps holed an astonishing 153-foot putt during the second round of team play. American businessman Hugh Connerty and Thai professional Thongchai Jaidee lead the team championship by five shots at 33 under.