INVERNESS, Scotland — Francesco Molinari held off a barrage of challengers at the Scottish Open by shooting a bogey-free 5-under 67 to take a one-stroke lead into Sunday’s final round.
The Italian, who held the overnight lead with Alexander Noren, remained consistent in changing weather around the Castle Stuart links on Saturday to stay in front at 17 under.
Anders Hansen of Denmark trails Molinari after shooting a 65.
Soren Kjeldsen and Marc Warren, who holed an amazing 80-foot putt for eagle on No. 16, are two strokes behind Molinari after 64s — the lowest rounds of the day along with Martin Laird.
Hansen upstaged his top-ranked playing partner Luke Donald (68), while Phil Mickelson also had a 65 to join three others trailing the leader by three shots
Noren was among that quartet — the Swede had been keeping pace with Molinari until making a triple-bogey 8 on No. 12. He lost his ball in bushes off the tee, and finished with a 70.
Mickelson built 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 three-time Masters champion, who entered the event 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 on Friday evening to get some more practice in a week before the British Open at Royal Lytham &St. Annes.
Molinari is looking to emulate his 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 captured the Open de Espana this year and has won three titles since turning professional in 2004. “So I need to play like today and give myself plenty of chances.”
Molinari shot a tournament record-equaling 62 in the first round and will have either shared the lead or held it on his own all four days.
Kjeldsen and Warren will play together on Sunday and are battling not just to win the tournament but to earn the one remaining qualifying spot for next week’s British Open. A top-five finish is required, with Whiteford — at 14 under — also in contention.
Donald, the defending champion, still feels he has a chance of victory after birdying two of the last three holes. Indeed, he shot a final-round 63 to win by four strokes last year.
“I hope there’s another low one in me,” Donald said. “Players have proved there are low scores out there and the leaders feel a bit more pressure and are more hesitant. I feel I can use that a bit to my advantage to catch them up.”
However, Molinari has only dropped shots on two of his 54 holes so far this week.
“I just have to start from scratch now,” Molinari said.