When he rolled in a 50-footer for birdie on 14, Thomas Aiken got an inkling that he was on his way to a special score as he raced to a nine-under-par 63 on Saturday in the third round of the Joburg Open.
His 10 birdies and a single bogey catapulted him into a share of the lead with Justin Walters at 17-under-par, two strokes clear of Korea’s Jin Jeong, and three of Roope Kakko of Finland in the €1.3-million tournament co-sanctioned by the Sunshine Tour and the European Tour at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club.
“I sank some nice putts today, and that showed in the difference in my scores,” said Aiken. “I played the par-fives very well and hit every green in two on those long holes. I had some good shots in, and made a few long ones, especially that huge putt on 14.”
The key to his round was staying focused on each shot rather than riding the wave of euphoria the 10 birdies inevitably brings. “I didn’t really know what I was scoring,” he said. “I was just going about my business. You never really see a low score coming; you just focus on each shot. That’s the importance in having a low number – keeping your composure and not thinking about score.”
Walters pretty much followed that tactic himself as he carded an eight-under-par 64 with seven birdies, a bogey and stunning approach shot to inside a foot on 18 which yielded an eagle three.
“I made a point of not looking at the leaderboard, so I had no idea what was going on behind me,” said Walters. “I heard a couple of roars and cheers ahead of me, and I know Tommy (Aiken) loves this course, so I knew he was going to make a run.”
Walters’ eagle may turn out to be the most important shot of the tournament. “An eagle on the last is always a massive boost. Tap-in eagles on Saturday are pretty good, the only thing I can think of that might be better is a tap-in eagle on Sunday!
“Considering the situation I am in it was pretty vital, because giving him (Aiken) a nice lead on this course will make him hard to catch,” he said.
Aiken wasn’t able to explain why the reputedly tough East Course at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington gave up scores so meekly, but pointed out that the heat and the humidity made the ball travel a ‘ridiculously long way’.
“What I normally hit 160 metres is going about 172,” he said, “and that makes it a little bit more difficult to judge your club selection, and that actually made things a little bit trickier, but if you stay below the hole on this course, you’re in pretty good shape.”
Walters had a monster putt of his own during his round – a 45-footer for birdie on 11 to round off a run of four birdies in succession. “I hit a nice drive and had only a wedge in, but then I had one of my worst swings of the day and I walked onto the green looking for two putts,” he said.
“As soon as I hit it I knew it was on a great line and the last three feet was just tracking. It’s such a lovely feeling to see a putt go in from that distance and it’s always a massive boost, always a lot of fun.”
And the pair will be looking for some fun again in the final round. As youngsters they used to have chipping competitions at Walters’ home, and lay out nine-hole tracks at Aiken’s. They spend time together when they travel in Europe, and now they will be vying for the Joburg Open.
“I feel like I can win any tournament I play,” said Aiken. “I’ve been out here a long time and from a ball striking point of view I’m as good as anybody out here. Those weeks where you can merge your ball striking with your short game is when you perform.”
Walters is a little less self-assured. “Tomorrow is certainly a good opportunity, and I will be nervous,” he said. “I’ve got one more round and I’m so happy that I’ve put myself into a strong position. I’m super excited for tomorrow, because it’s what we play for.”