SHENZHEN, China – A day after Alexander Levy played a near-perfect 62 in the second round at the China Open – the best 18-hole score of his career – the Frenchman was happy just to get off the course with a 2-under 70 Saturday in pelting rain with gusting winds.
That was solid enough to maintain a three-stroke lead over Alvaro Quiros of Spain heading into the final round.
“It was tough to stay focused, but I kept my mind in good condition and played some good shots,” Levy said.
Levy, aiming for his first European Tour title, wasn’t nearly as accurate as he was on Friday, when he holed a 20-foot putt for eagle and made eight birdies en route to setting a new course record at Genzon Golf Club.
But he handled the nasty weather at the start of the third round and maintained his composure after bogeying Nos. 14 and 16, managing to avoid a third bogey with a 15-foot putt for par on the 18th. He has a 16-under total of 200.
Levy knows he will face a lot more pressure on Sunday, even with a three-stroke cushion. Last year, he was tied with Ernie Els for the lead heading into the final round of the BMW International Open, but committed four bogeys in his last nine holes to slip to third.
“I will be nervous, but because you’re nervous doesn’t mean you can’t play well,” he said. “I’ll sleep nicely because I’m tired. It was a long day with the weather and difficult golf course.”
Quiros has six European Tour titles to his credit but hasn’t got a win — or even a top-three finish — since his title at the Dubai World Championship in November 2011.
“If Alex plays really well then we might not be able to catch him,” Quiros said. “It has been two-and-a-half years since I won so I have not had those feelings for a long time.”
Finland’s Mikko Ilonen was four strokes back in third place after a 67, while England’s Tommy Fleetwood (67) and Spain’s Adrian Otaegui (71) were another stroke behind in a tie for fourth.
A day after 15-year-old Chinese amateur Guan Tianlang failed to make the cut, another young homegrown talent, 18-year-old Li Haotong, shot a 67 to match the lowest score of the day and jump into joint eighth at 7 under.
With the leaders so far ahead, Li is playing for another goal — a big payday. The golf club has pledged to double the purse for any Chinese player finishing in the top five.
While Guan has received most of the attention in China after his breakthrough performance at last year’s Masters, where he became the youngest player to make the cut, Li is perhaps better poised to make an immediate impact on the game.
Last year, he signed an endorsement deal with Nike and coped remarkably well against elite fields at the HSBC Champions and BMW Masters in his hometown of Shanghai, finishing tied for 39th and 42nd, respectively.
And after practicing on the Genzon Golf Club course for the last two months, he’s close to his first top-five finish.
“I’m very happy. I want to keep that name on the leaderboard,” he said.
England’s Ian Poulter also shot a 67 Saturday to move up to equal 11th place. But Poulter said he was still smarting from a two-stroke penalty he incurred on the 13th hole Friday when he improperly measured his drop after hitting into the rough.
He took a triple-bogey 8 on the hole, following a double bogey on the 12th.
“I shouldn’t be happy with the position I’m in. I dropped five shots yesterday in two holes. It’s unacceptable. It’s disgraceful,” he said. “I should be a lot closer to the lead, but that’s golf. You can’t have it perfect all the time.”
Third-ranked Henrik Stenson would certainly agree. The Swede hasn’t played his best since coming down with the flu earlier this week, and couldn’t make up any ground on the leaders Saturday, falling 12 shots behind after shooting a 71.
He needed a win here to take over the top ranking from Tiger Woods — a goal that now appears well out of reach.