INVERNESS, Scotland -- Francesco Molinari held off a barrage of challengers on a third straight low-scoring day at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open on Saturday, shooting a 5-under 67 to take a one-stroke lead into the final round.
The Italian, who held the overnight lead with Alexander Noren, remained consistent in changing weather around the Castle Stuart links to stay in front at 17 under.
Ian Woosnam is the only player to have won the Scottish Open three times -- in 1987, 1990 and 1996.
Anders Hansen is Molinari's closest challenger after a 65, upstaging top-ranked playing partner Luke Donald (68), while Phil Mickelson also carded a 65 and is three shots back in a tie for fifth with three other players.
Noren was among that quartet at 14 under. The Swede, who shot a 70, kept pace with Molinari until a triple-bogey 8 on No. 12.
Asking for a late invitation into the tournament could turn out to be one of the best decisions of Mickelson's career -- even if he cannot catch Molinari in the final round.
Outside the top 120 after an opening 73 on Thursday, Mickelson, with one eye on the upcoming British Open, has charged all the way into a tie for fifth. Among the players he moved past was world No. 1 and defending champion Donald.
Molinari, though, is on course to emulate the Scottish Open victory two years ago by his brother Edoardo, who is out this summer after undergoing wrist surgery. It would be only the second time in European Tour history that brothers have lifted the same title. Spaniards Antonio and German Garrido won the Madrid Open in in 1977 and 1973 respectively.
Scotland’s Marc Warren and Denmark’s Soren Kjeldsen are now tied for third, only two back. Playing together, they both shot 64 and now lead the battle for the one Open spot up for grabs at the tournament.
Last July Mickelson went from finishing only 58th at Castle Stuart to a tie for second behind Darren Clarke at the Open, so no wonder he is so looking forward to what next weekend may now bring. He has been trying to win the Open since 1991 -- just as Clarke had been when he finally made it.
Eight days ago, Mickelson, 42, was not even going to be in Inverness, but after a run of seven successive rounds over par and a missed cut at the Greenbrier Classic, he decided to change plans.
"I should have had it planned out originally, but there was a chance to take the kids to Italy," he said. "I'm very pleased and excited. Given my three previous events, it would have been asking a lot to get ready for Thursday (the start of The Open) if I hadn't played here.
"This course is so good at getting you ready for playing links golf. It does not beat you up so much."
That is demonstrated by the scoring this week -- with no significant wind yet, the halfway cut fell at 4 under, only two off the Tour record.
"I'll be trying to make a run at the lead, but more than that I feel like my game is starting to improve every day," said Mickelson. "Hopefully I'll have a good round and that will give me some momentum heading into next week as well. I'm excited about the (last two) scores because I haven't been playing at that level, even though I knew it wasn't that far off."
He was slow off the blocks with a front-nine 35, but then had six birdies coming home in 30.
Molinari and Noren matched each other hole-for-hole, going to the turn in 32. But then Molinari added a fifth birdie on the 10th and Noren hit his drive down the long 12th into the gorse on the right and ran up his triple-bogey 8.
Molinari, who took the lead with a course-record 62 in the first round, has been receiving text messages of support from Edoardo.
"He said he'll be watching," the 29-year-old stated. "He's probably a bit bored -- he has not started rehab yet and is just resting."
Having been runner-up in last week's French Open after a closing 64, Molinari has the chance to leap from 10th all the way to second in the European Ryder Cup standings with only six more weeks of qualifying to go.
"I'm satisfied with that 67. I played really well, especially on the front nine, and didn't make the mistakes I did yesterday," he said. "I'm feeling good. Obviously last week was a good week and I came here with confidence in my game."
Hansen was in the final group with David Howell in Paris, but shot 75 and fell away to 11th. He has the chance to make amends after a 64.
Donald returned a 68 containing seven birdies, but also three bogeys.
"A couple of loose iron shots costs me," he said, but when reminded he closed with a 63 to win by four a year ago, he replied: "I hope there's another low one in me. If it's calm again I'm going to have to shoot a number like that."