INVERNESS, Scotland – Francesco Molinari held off a barrage of challengers at the Scottish Open on Saturday, shooting a 5-under 67 to take a one-stroke lead into the final round.
The Italian, who held the overnight lead with Alexander Noren, remained consistent in changing weather around the Castle Stuart links to stay in front at 17 under.
After a third straight low-scoring day, Anders Hansen is Molinari's closest challenger after a 65. Hansen upstaged his top-ranked playing partner Luke Donald (68), while Phil Mickelson also carded a 65 and three shots back in a tie with three others.
Noren was among that quartet at 14 under. The Swede, who finished with a 70, kept pace with Molinari until a triple-bogey 8 on No. 12 after losing his ball in bushes off the tee.
Molinari is looking to emulate older brother Edoardo, who won the Scottish Open in 2010 when it was staged at Loch Lomond. They would be the second siblings to win the same event on the European Tour, after the victories of Antonio and German Garrido at the Madrid Open in the 1970s.
"I think it's going to need more than 20 under to win," said Molinari, who has already won this year at the Open de Espana. "So I need to play like today and give myself plenty of chances."
Molinari shot a tournament record-tying 62 in the first round and will have either shared the lead or held it on his own all four days.
Soren Kjeldsen and Marc Warren are two strokes behind after 64s — the lowest rounds of the day along with Martin Laird.
Scottish players Warren, Laird and Peter Whiteford (66) are all in the top eight, boosting hopes for a first home winner of the event since Colin Montgomerie in 1999.
With Donald failing to build on a bright start in glorious lunchtime conditions, when the rain stayed off and the flags were limp, Mickelson could now be Molinari's biggest challenger.
The American proved he is returning to form — less than a week before the start of the British Open — by building on a second-round 64 with another blitz of eight birdies. Six of those came on the back nine and he finished just as the day's only burst of heavy rain came.
Mickelson believes the wind will need to pick up if Molinari is going to be stopped on Sunday.
"We'll see more bogeys and we'll see the golf course play the way it's capable of playing," said the triple Masters champion, who was only entered for the event on Sunday after getting a late invitation. "I think for us to catch the leaders, we need a little bit of weather."
Mickelson played 12 holes at a local club Friday night to get some more practice in ahead of this weekend, and also with the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in mind.
Of the 77 players to make the cut, only 12 failed to shoot par or better Saturday. Two of that dozen came in the next-to-last pairing, with Ricardo Gonzalez (75) and Matteo Manassero (73) falling off the pace after being well-placed on Friday.
Donald, the defending champion, will still feel he has a chance of winning after birdies on two of the last three holes.
"Players have proved there are low scores out there and the leaders feel a bit more pressure and are more hesitant, and I feel I can use that a bit to my advantage to catch them up," he said.
Molinari, however, has dropped shots on only two of his 54 holes so far this week.
"I just have to start from scratch now," Molinari said.