Sydney, November 18: Australia's James Nitties took advantage of a benign Royal Sydney to shoot 65, equalling the day's best round, and take the outright lead in the Emirates Australian Open today.
But the Adam Scott from Australia versus American Jordan Spieth shootout that many spectators probably crave is still a possibility.
Nitties (-9) leads by a shot from New Zealand powerhouse Ryan Fox and a further shot to another Australian, US-based Rhein Gibson.
World number seven Scott, who also shot 65, is just three shots from the lead going into the weekend with Spieth a further shot away, lurking as he did in 2014 when he won at The Australian Golf Club.
Playing the back nine first in the afternoon, 34-year-old Nitties gave no indication of what was to come, even par for his first 10 holes and by his own admission, wondering whether he would make the cut.
But he exploded with a front-nine 29, including an eagle at the second when he hit a four-iron inside a metre at the par-five, and three consecutive birdies to finish his round. On the last, he hit a sand wedge to just inside three metres and rattled home the birdie putt.
It has been quite some time since the laconic Novacastrian, who has spent the past five years on the Web.com Tour in the United States, has contended in a big tournament.
In fact, he has lost his playing status on the secondary American Tour and spent most of 2016 knocking it around on mini tours and Monday qualifiers, then returning to Australia to play a few pro-am events just for the competition.
It is a long way from pro-ams to leader of the Emirates Australian Open, but Nitties never thought of walking away. "A lot of people work really hard in middle class jobs and they have to work 60 hours a week,'' he said. "If I can work really hard for four hours and get something out of it, it really changes perspective.''
Light winds made scoring easy in the morning. By the time the joint-first round leaders Curtis Luck and Lucas Herbert hit-off in the afternoon, they had been overtaken.
Scott was one of the first to move, although he took some time to find his mojo, going through the back nine without picking up a shot but then getting around the front side in 30. He birdied the short first from close range, had another birdie at the par-five second and again at the par-three sixth where he made a long putt, which kept the momentum.
At the reachable par-five seventh, he made his big move, hitting a four-iron to short-range, calling it "my best shot of the day'', and rolling in the eagle putt from just inside two metres. The Australian could easily have signed for 64; at the ninth, his last hole, he hit a wedge to just more than a metre but tugged the putt left and had to be content with par.
"I hit a lot of good shots,'' he said. "I played a solid last nine holes. Unfortunately, it took me 27 to get that kind of good golf out of me, so hopefully there’s 36 good holes coming up.''
Fox, the son of All Black legend Grant Fox, is closest to Nitties after a 68 today that puts him in tomorrow's final group. Like Nitties he has never won a tournament on this level, but he has qualified to play on the European Tour next year and he has loads of game.
No New Zealander has won the Australian Open, a fact that brought a smile to his face last night. "I guess you guys are our biggest rivals in pretty much everything sport and it would certainly be nice to have a Kiwi name on the Stonehaven Cup,'' he said.
Amateur Luck birdied the final hole for a 71 that keeps him in the mix at six-under, brushing off a moment on the seventh hole when his tee shot flared right and stayed up a tree. Unable to find or identify the ball despite the fact spectators saw it fly into the branches, he had to return to the tee to reload.
Luck is not the only amateur on the first page, with fellow Perth ace Min Woo Lee carding a 67 to underline his talent and sit within the top 10, setting up a third-round pairing with Venezuelan star Jhonattan Vegas (66 today).
The cut was made at one under with 61 professionals and five amateurs to play on the weekend.