Canada’s Aaron Cockerill has left behind the snow of Winnipeg and golf in the garage to heat up the leaderboard at the ISPS HANDA Championship Japan.
Japanese pros representing their red and white flag are everywhere yet only one in this field of 144 has a red maple leaf as his proud ensign. Cockerill’s hat-trick of birdies to open the third round set the tone for his fine six-under-par 64 which vaulted him to the lead at 13-under at PGM Ishioka Golf Club in Ibaraki Prefecture.
Cockerill (64-69-64) heads into trophy day on Sunday with a one-stroke buffer over Australia’s Lucas Herbert (67-63-68) and Scotland’s David Law (66-68-64). Takumi Kanaya and Rikuya Hoshino are in a trio at 11-under and best placed to capitalise on the direct route to the DP World Tour that this historic co-sanctioned event offers for any victorious Japan Golf Tour member.
Moving day was just that for Cockerill who celebrated his 31st birthday this week with grilled meats over a yakiniku barbecue on his first visit to Japan. Leaving the cold of Winnipeg was much easier than leaving wife Chelsea and the warmth of their newborn daughter Addison, who was born on February 1.
“This time of year in Winnipeg, it’s snowing. My full golf set-up is in the garage with simulator, putting green and gym to get things done indoors,” Cockerill explained.
A few practice days in Vancouver was better preparation for his first flight to Japan and a shot at a breakthrough first victory on the DP World Tour.
“The distance I hit it, I can either cover all the bunkers or sometimes come up short so it’s kind of a sweet spot for me here. The greens are running perfectly and everything the golf course presents is out in front of you,” Cockerill said. “It’s the best I’ve hit it in a long time and it’s required out here. I feel really good…I had an awesome start (with birdies on four of the first five holes) and played steady the rest of the way.”
The course and its presentation have received overwhelmingly positive reviews from the players enjoying the first DP World Tour event played in Japan.
Canada’s Aaron Cockerill tees off on the sixth hole during his 64 in the third round of the ISPS HANDA Championship Japan at PGM Ishioka Golf Club (Photo: Yoshimasa Nakano/Getty Images)
Canadian golf has never been in such health with Corey Conners (30), Mackenzie Hughes (53), Adam Svensson (58), Nick Taylor (66) and Adam Hadwin (70) all ranked in the world top 100.
“Canadian golf is as strong as it has even been with the most golfers we have ever had in the top 100,” said Cockerill, ranked No.381.
“I probably fly under the radar a little bit more with Canadians back home but hopefully I’ll give them something to pay attention to on Sunday.”
Cockerill is hunting a first professional title while chasers Herbert, Law, Kanaya and Hoshino can all draw on winning experiences. There are 25 players within six strokes of the lead so a winner could come from anywhere.
Herbert drove the ball beautifully in the third round and was often 20-30m ahead of Thai playing partner Jazz Janewattananond off the tee. He made just three birdies in his 68 but didn’t let the frustration of putts sliding by the hole get him down. Herbert, 27, has won on the PGA Tour in Bermuda and on the DP World Tour in Dubai and Ireland and will bring those good vibes to the final round.
“That third round was one where I could have let the frustrations get to me but there’s something in me where I can let frustrations go and move on,” Herbert said. “Obviously, I have those wins and what to do to get ready in the memory banks. That brings a lot of confidence.”
When asked what his mindset would be for a Sunday shootout, he was direct: “There’s nothing else I want to do other than win.”
Law is showing the benefit of pilates after being affected by a hip injury earlier in the year. His 64 included seven birdies.
Hometown pro Hoshino may be the best of the Japanese hopes. He is a six-time winner on the Japan Golf Tour and knows what is at stake.
“I believe knowing the course is an advantage. My course management worked very well in the first three days even as course conditions became tougher,” Hoshino said. “One of my goals for this year would be to win at least one tournament. So, it would be great to win on the DP World Tour in my hometown.”