Defending champion Alexander Levy could do little wrong as he opened his third round at the China Open in Shanghai on Saturday with four straight birdies, including a magnificent 50-foot putt.
Then, mistakes – and self-doubt – started to enter the Frenchman’s game.
Levy carded three bogeys and failed to sink another birdie as David Howell and Chinese pair Li Haotong and Wu Ashun caught him in the lead at eight-under-par 208 going into the final round.
Australian Scott Strange is four shots off the lead on 212 after a third-round 69, one stroke ahead of countryman Richard Green (213), who also fired a 69.
“On the back nine, I was a little bit nervous,” Levy said. “I was aggressive on my putt and I make a few mistakes.”
Levy is aiming to be the first repeat champion in the 20-year history of the China Open.
The Frenchman started the day a stroke behind countryman Julien Quesne, but quickly erased the deficit with a quick birdie on the first hole. Then came a three-foot birdie putt on No.2, the curling 50-footer on the third, and a 10-foot putt that rattled into the hole on No.4, putting him two strokes ahead.
The affable Levy narrowly missed several other birdie chances and drove his tee shot to the right of the fairway on the 12th, and recorded back-to-back bogeys on 14 and 15 to lose his outright lead.
Levy said his confidence began to waver, coming off a particularly rough three-month stretch in which he missed out on his first chance to play the Masters, but hoped to put those feelings behind him on Sunday.
“It’s nice to play for the win and, tomorrow, I’m in a good position,” he said.
Howell has also been in this position. The biggest career victory came 10 years ago in Shanghai when he outduelled Tiger Woods in the final round to win the HSBC Champions.
“I was thinking my way around (today) when I won in China for the first time, obviously in the company of Tiger, so if you can do that, then you can certainly handle the pace,” Howell said.
It’s been two years since Howell’s last European Tour victory, but the 39-year-old Englishman put together a solid round on Saturday, making five birdies in a seven-hole stretch to shoot a 68 for a share of the lead.
Howell and Levy will have to contend with a partisan crowd on Sunday with the two Chinese players also tied for top spot after both shot 69 on Saturday. Levy will be paired with Wu, and Howell will play with Li in the final pairing.