Nitties shows true grit at Australian PGA

BY Bruce Young | Australasian PGA Tour | 2004 Australian PGA Championship | Round Three | 04 Dec 2004

The possibility of a young rookie golfer taking on some of Australia’s most tour hardened professionals provided an interesting scenario on day three of the Cadbury Schweppes Australian PGA Championship. It did not take long for those just off the pace to serve notice to the 22-year-old James Nitties that taking the lead at this level is one thing, holding it is another.

While Nitties warmed up on the adjacent practice fairway, several of those looking to get off to a good third round start, did just that. Peter O’Malley was the first to move with an opening birdie to get to ten under. Unfortunately for O’Malley he gave it back with interest at the next when he double bogeyed but the tone was being set for those who would follow. O’Malley would later get back into contention.

Craig Spence opened with a birdie and when he also birdied the 4th, he was at ten under. By then, the leaders had teed off and Peter Lonard, who was playing in the second last group with Parry and looking for tournament titles in three consecutive weeks, birdied the first with an approach to a metre and a half. Further birdies at the par five 4th and 8th had him at 13 under and when he hit his approach to the 9th to two metres, it appeared likely that he would take the outright for the first time. He missed and at the same time as he was doing that Bob Estes was over a birdie putt at the 8th that, if he made it, would take him into the outright lead at 14 under. He made it and he was.

Nitties facing this sort of pressure and scrutiny for the very first time was simply brilliant. Irrespective of what happens on day four, he passed a significant examination early when he birdied the first, then recovered from a bogey at the 4th to regain the lead he had provided a share of to Estes.

This was a huge occasion for the new recruit to the pro ranks and he seemed more comfortable than perhaps he was entitled to be. His first real thinking mistake came at the par three 6th when he flew his 7 iron 190 metres through the back of the green. He could be forgiven for that perhaps. Not many seven irons fly that far. At the next, the shortish par four 7th, he pulled an iron from the fairway into the hazard left of the green. He was either too attacking, perhaps just pulled it, or perhaps both, but whatever, he dropped a shot there and he shared the lead again. Estes then birdied the par five 8th and then the par four 9th to go two ahead of Nitties and three ahead of Lonard.

Estes bogeyed the 11th after a pulled tee shot to the par 3, but then immediately regained that shot with a birdie at the 12th to be at fifteen under and two ahead. The par five 15th has strangely proven to be one of the more difficult holes of the week and it yet claimed another victim when the leader took bogey and the difference was back to just one. The third shot from the layup there is a dangerous one and Estes fell victim to its vagaries.

Ahead, Senior, Pavin and O’Malley were all finishing their rounds in style, each getting to 12 under at the completion of their rounds. Pavin has not played in Australia since his playoff loss to Stephen Leaney in 1998 and he is a long way from his heyday which fell between the early 1980’s and the US Open win of 1995. He has played better this year however. “My game’s getting better,” he said. "It is certainly nowhere near to where it was in the early 1990’s, but this year has been my best for some time and I owe much of that to Butch Harmon. The things we are working on are starting to fall into place and tournaments situations such as this really help.

When asked as to how much encouragement it required to get him down here he said, “We have been working on it a long time to come down here and I really wanted to come this year. The scheduling has not worked in the past but I love to travel to play. This is a great resort here.” Pavin’s record outside the US bears testament to his sentiments. He has won twelve times internationally including events in South Africa, Japan, New Zealand, Germany, Britain, Korea and Taiwan and perhaps after tomorrow, Australia.

Senior is well placed to defend his title having won it here last year over Rod Pampling. At twelve under the prolific winner of tournaments would not surprise if he was able to go on and win tomorrow.

O’Malley has not had a good year by his standards, but he finds a way to play well at home, especially on a course where power is not such a factor. He does not win as often as he should but he is now well enough placed, just two behind, to challenge here and perhaps win his most important Australian title.

Lonard will have been disappointed at the manner in which he finished his round after such a great start, but he is still very much a factor for the final round. At three under for the day through eight holes he promised much but did not deliver. He may well be delivering tomorrow as at just three behind a highly talented but young and relatively inexperienced leader, he is certainly not out of it.

Estes arrived into the press centre a frustrated golfer having just three putted the last for bogey to slip one behind after leading into the last hole.

“I played so good and only shot two under,” he said. “I mean I should have been five or six under maybe even better. I hit it that good, a lot of shots didn’t turn out and lot of putts didn’t go in. I was in between yardages a lot, especially on the back nine, which meant I couldn’t attack as much as I would have liked. A good example was at the 15th when I would like to have hit a sand iron but the lie was hanging and I didn’t want to hit the sand iron hard, so I tried to bump a wedge and took bogey.” They were perhaps a little surprising those comments, given that this is a game full of ifs and buts.

“As tidy as my round was for the most part,” he added, “you could tell he, (Nitties) was living on the edge out there. He shot a good score but he was close to disaster many times. I’ve played plenty of rounds like that too and have managed a good score because I am a fighter and so is James. It was an impressive score.”

Nitties followed Estes in the media centre. He had just birdied the last to create a two shot turnaround “It was exactly what I expected out there,” he said relating to the situation and atmosphere. “I have been there before (last year’s MasterCard Masters) and didn’t feel the nerves really.”

He was asked to respond the comments that Estes had made regarding the amount of times he avoided disaster. “I can understand some of those comments but there were several occasions when I did not capitalise on my chances. Generally I scrambled well but there were occasions when I did not take advantage full advantage of some good shots.”

And what about the shot to the 18th which set up the birdie? “My line was probably about fifteen right of the pin and the lie encouraged even more of a draw so when it started I was thinking well if it holds that line I will be very happy. If I had it over again I would be still aiming right of the pin. I got away with it a little but it was a well executed shot.” The shot which landed perhaps a little closer to the water than Nitties would have liked, finished five feet from the hole and he made the putt for birdie to grab the lead.

While many looked as if they would go lower, the best round of the day came from the New Zealand PGA Champion and now USPGA Tour player, Gavin Coles. His round of 66 saw him move from 35th to 9th.

Tomorrow shapes as yet another gripping day as Nitties attempts to create a fairytale start to his professional career and the more recognised names of recent Australian golf try to stop that from happening. Throw in the likes of the highly credentialed Bob Estes and Corey Pavin, who are serious chances, and we have the recipe for a great final day here at the Hyatt Regency Coolum.

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    About the Author: Bruce Young

    A multi-award winning golf journalist, Bruce's extensive knowledge of the game comes from several years caddying the tournament circuits of the world, marketing a successful golf course design company and as one of Australia's leading golf journalists and commentators.


    Read all of Bruce's articles »

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