THERE was a spell on Open Championship Saturday when it was shaping up to be a two horse race akin to Sea Biscuit taking on War Admiral.

The thoroughbreds of Louis Oosthuizen and Jordan Spieth had started to separate themselves from the rest on a sun-soaked afternoon of high temperatures and even higher stakes. With the clock ticking towards 8pm, though, the 149th Open was still, well, open.

Oosthuizen was out in front at 12-under but Spieth’s miserable brace of three-putt bogeys at 17 and 18 saw him slither three behind with Collin Morikawa sandwiched in between at 11-under after he mounted a spirited salvage operation.

The other runners and riders have not given up hope just yet. “The funny thing with this game is you just never know,” said defending champion Shane Lowry, who may be too far back at five-under but certainly was not going to toss in the towel. Plenty of others will be adopting a similar outlook.

As the final pairing of Oosthuizen and Morikawa walked off the 18th, a shell-shocked Spieth was out on the practice green hitting putt after putt and having the kind of in-depth, stern-faced exchanges with his team that would make the Frost & Nixon interviews look like a quick blether at the bus stop. It had been a sobering finale for the 2017 Open champion.

Oosthuizen, who led the way overnight, cemented his place at the top with a one-under 69. On a day of ebb and flow, nip and tuck and cut and thrust, the 38-year-old took another step towards a first major conquest since he won The Open 11 years ago. There are probably remote tribes in deepest Sarawak who know that Oosthuizen has since been a runner-up six times in the majors, such has been the coverage of his near misses. “Go one better,” was his simple plan ahead of today’s final round. “Finishing second isn't great, so I will play my heart out.”

As Oosthuizen made a steady, if unspectacular start to round three, and Morikawa stumbled out of the traps with two early bogeys, Spieth fired four birdies in seven holes to signal his intent.

An increasingly fiery course, and some testing, mischievous pins, teased and tormented but Oosthuizen looked calm and composed and pair of birdies at seven and nine fortified his position against Spieth’s menacing advances.

And then came the shoogle. Oosthuizen had dropped just one shot all week until he spilled two in quick fire succession at the 11th and 13th.

A stout putt for par on the 15th was vital to plug the leaks and a 10-footer for a birdie on the 16th hauled him onto 12-under. It was a decisive moment. “With all the fans there, it felt like it was a Sunday afternoon when I made the putt and I was taking the lead,” he said. “I did have a lot of opportunities to go two or three better, but that’s what this golf course can do to you.”

Morikawa, who won the US PGA Championship on his debut last year and is making his first appearance in The Open, showed great heart to recover from a wobbly start and stay in the hunt.

After those early bogeys, the 24-year-old set about repairing the damage like a panel beater clattering out the dents and four birdies aided the task. Morikawa had chances too at both 17 and 18 but he could not convert. A gritty 68, though, kept him lurking and ready to pounce on the man in front.

“I think the biggest thing I can draw from the PGA win is just knowing I can get it done,” he said of that major breakthrough. “It's going to be a gruelling 18 holes but this is a position you want to be in.”

At eight-under, Corey Connors and Scottie Scheffler have plenty to play for, as does world No 2 and US Open champion Jon Rahm at seven-under. In the Sandwich heat, some big names wilted, however.

Dustin Johnson, the world No 1, was five-over by the time he registered his first birdie of the day on his way to a 73 and a four-under tally. Brooks Koepka, with three bogeys in his first five holes, slumped to a 72 and retreated to three-under. Rory McIlroy bounded to the turn in 31 but staggered home in three-over to finish among the also rans.

There is still a mighty race to be run at the head of affairs.