The genius of Mukesh Kumar resurfaced on Friday as the Mhow golfer fired a round of three-under 69 to displace old rival Rafiq Ali from the pedestal in the penultimate round of the Hyundai-TNGF Open 2004, being played at the par-72, Cosmo-TNGF Golf Course.
Mukesh, who tallies ten-under 206 for the event, is all set to make a final day charge to draw first blood on the Amby Valley PGAI Tour's 2004-05 season.
One stroke behind the leader at nine-under 207, is Kolkata-based Rafiq Ali, while Lucknow's Vijay Kumar shot a superb five-under 67 to spring into the third spot at eight-under 208.
The trio of Uttam Mundy (Kolkata), Gaurav Ghei (Delhi) and Amritinder Singh (Chandigarh) were tied for the fourth position at seven-under 209.
Mukesh Kumar, much like Shane Warne about Sachin Tendulkar, once had nightmares at the very thought of Rafiq Ali. This was not without reason, as Rafiq, twice in as many months in 1999, beat him in play-offs to deprive him of crucial title wins.
The events in question were the Patna Open and the KGA Silver Jubilee Open, in Bangalore. On that occasion, Mukesh swore he would spend the off-season working on the mental aspect of his game and come back a better pressure player. True to his word, Mukesh went on to win three straight Order of Merit titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. Five years down the line from that fateful summer, the two veterans clashed yet again but this time the ball clearly lies in Mukesh's court.
"Remember the time India beat England at the Nat West Trophy final," asked Mukesh. "Well the hosts then swore that they would get even with India soon. We all know what happened last Wednesday. Make no bones about it, I am England for tomorrow. I still haven't forgotten those two losses in 1999. Tomorrow will be my day," affirmed the 38-year- old.
Mukesh, who started the day two strokes behind the leader, birdied the second and fourth and stood on the tenth tee box at two-under. Another birdie on the 11th was however followed by a bogey on the 14th. On that occasion, Mukesh missed a two feet par putt. He however made up with a birdie on the16th.
"I drove the ball beautifully today but my putting was atrocious," said Mukesh. "I probably missed six or seven birdies from as close as six feet," he said. "Tomorrow, I aim to card a five under. That should suffice to hand me the title," concluded the golfer, who won the Hyundai-MGC Open at Chennai last year.
Rafiq Ali had a roller coaster round. The 34-year-old fired his approach shot to seven feet from the pin and went on to eagle the second and followed this with a birdie on the fourth, but then double bogeyed the fifth.
On that occasion, his second shot hit the fairway marker, sending the ball into the deep rough. A birdie on the seventh was undone by dropped shots on the eighth and ninth. On his back-nine, Rafiq birdied the 11th, 14th and 15th and despite a bogey on the 17th, looked set to retain the lead.
However, his second double bogey of the day surfaced on the 18th.
"I played too safe today. Tomorrow, I plan to attack the pin. That is the only way I am going to beat Mukesh on this course," said Rafiq, who shot a 72 today.
Vijay Kumar had a brilliant round with birdies on the second, fourth, sixth, seventh and ninth and a bogey on the fifth. After making the turn, the Lucknow golfer birdied the 13th, 14th and 16th but he too suffered a fate similar to Rafiq's, double bogeying the final hole of his round.
Asian Games gold medalist Shiv Kapur, playing his rookie Amby Valley PGAI Tour event shot a two-over 74 to slip to tied 18th place at level-par 216.
Ahlawat continues in amateur lead: Abhishek Ahlawat fired a round of 80 but continued to lead the amateur field at 230, eight strokes ahead of second-placed Karun Alaganan.
SCORES (after 54 holes): 206 Mukesh Kumar(67,70,69); 207 Rafiq Ali(69,66,72); 208 Vijay Kumar(72,69,67); 209 Uttam Mundy(69,71,69), Amritinder Singh(67,70,72), Gaura Ghei(68,68,73); 211 Feroz Ali(73,68,70), Siv Parkash(69,69,73), Harinder Gupta(68,70,73); 213 Mohd. Islam(73,71,69), Ashok Kumar(69,72,72), Pappan(67,72,74); 214 Rahul Ganapathy(72,72,70), Shamim Khan(70,75,69).
Amateurs: 230 Abhishek Ahlawat(76,74,80); 238 Karun Alaganan(81,76,81).