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Zach Murray retains lead with late birdies

Murray regains lead with strong finish. (Photo: Photo Sport NZ)
A good luck kiss of his driver has helped Australian Zach Murray clamber to a one-shot lead going into the final round of the 100th New Zealand Open in Queenstown.

Murray started the day with a five-shot buffer over the field, but his third bogey of the day on the 10th saw him slide down the leaderboard at The Hills today. The 21-year old needed a birdie-birdie ending to finish 17- under to grab a one-shot advantage over New Zealand’s Josh Geary.

Standing on the 18th tee and sharing the lead with Geary, Murray’s caddy convinced him to give his driver a smooch and he duly pounded his tee shot down the middle of the fairway to set up a finishing birdie.

“I gave Leuk the Duck a wee kiss on the last - it’s the Jarrod Lyle leukaemia duck - just for a wee bit of good luck. My caddy makes me kiss it every now and again, so a bit of humour.”

Murray was able to reflect on a round where he kept himself together as his lead wilted in the Central Otago heat, before earning an ovation from The Hills clubhouse with a strong finish.

“That’s what you live for in golf, to hole those putts on the last. It gave me a few goosebumps. I wasn’t playing bad earlier on, I just wasn’t capitalising on my good shots.”

Murray won on the ISPS HANDA PGA Tour of Australasia at the WA Open last year as an amateur, but is on the cusp of his first professional win after joining the paid ranks in November.

“Josh will obviously have a few followers about and it will be really nice to play in front of his home crowd. I’m thoroughly enjoying New Zealand at the moment, I think the crowds have been fantastic this week and super supportive of me.”

Not many were talking about Geary as a potential New Zealand Open champion after two rounds, but that all changed today.

Starting the day eight shots behind Murray, Geary was superb with his approach play on the way to a nine-under 63 which featured a memorable eagle on the driveable 340m par 4 15th.

Geary, who lost his European Tour card at the end of last year, hails from Mount Maunganui but would have preferred not to have spent as much time in the sand over the closing two holes, finding two bunkers on 17 and another on 18.

“With Zach five shots in front you had to do something pretty special if he kept going the way he was,” Geary said.

“The field has caught up a bit which has given a few more players a chance. I didn’t do a lot different today. I hit a lot of good approach shots, a lot of close ones and gave myself smaller birdie putts. The short irons were definitely dialled in early on.”

Geary has been troubled by tightness in his hips and spent plenty of time stretching during the round.

“My hips have not been in a great spot this week and I’ve done a lot of work with the physios this week. There’s no pain, just not moving that well and it affects my golf swing and I lost a few tee shots early on from that. It felt better later on but I will do some more work with the physios and get it squared away.”

Fellow New Zealander Harry Bateman is three shots off the lead after a mixed round which included two bogeys and two eagles, for a share of third with Japan’s Ryuko Tokimatsu and Kodai Ichihara, who shot five birdies in his first six holes.

Rikuya Hoshino matched Geary for the round of the day with nine-under 63, three birdies in his closing four holes keeping him in sight of the leaders.

“I was aiming to play 8-under today but I’m glad to get one more birdie. I think I am in a good position for tomorrow, I’ll do my best to win.”

Hoshino is four shots off the pace, along with Australians Ashley Hall and 2014 New Zealand Open winner Dimitrios Papadatos.

Top-ranked Kiwi Ryan Fox put himself in a good position early in his round when he got to 12-under, but three bogeys saw him slip back to 10-under for the round.

“It was a frustrating day to be honest from three-under after six and everything felt good. It got slow out there and I lost rhythm a bit and hit a couple of poor drives and didn’t putt anywhere near as good as yesterday,” Fox said.

“I need something silly low tomorrow, but Josh has done that today, so I know it is out there.”

Meanwhile, Geary would love to turn his boyhood dreams into reality by winning his national open.

“It would mean the world being from New Zealand to win your home Open. Only a select few have done that and some pretty good names at that.

"This is the event we grew up watching as kids. Even at the age of 13 or 14 I dreamed of playing in the Open, so to win it would be unbelievable for sure.”

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