Thursday 18 January 2018

Superb back nine puts Bjorn in pole at Wentworth

Thomas Bjorn and Shane Lowry keep the rain off at Wentworth yesterday
Thomas Bjorn and Shane Lowry keep the rain off at Wentworth yesterday

Ewan Murray at Wentworth

Suddenly, this is Thomas Bjorn's tournament to lose. Bjorn's double bogey on the opening hole of the third round of the BMW PGA Championship offered hope to up to 20 players. The Dane's wobble was soon and comprehensively offset; a terrific run of six birdies in a row from the 11th pushed Bjorn out to 14 under par and six strokes clear of the field.

By close of play yesterday, that advantage sat at five from Luke Donald.

This could yet be a procession, albeit Donald's bogey-free third round was the latest indicator of a man returning to form. Despite struggles with the putter, Shane Lowry is still a danger, one shot adrift of Donald.

At 43 years old, Bjorn's recent renaissance has been one of golf's more endearing tales. In direct relation to this event, his prominence is a surprise; Bjorn hasn't earned a top-10 finish at Wentworth since 1998.

This time around, a Thursday course record score of 62 placed Bjorn in a position that he has managed to keep a firm grip on. Yesterday's one-off highlight was a curving 20ft putt on the 15th, thereby providing the penultimate birdie of Bjorn's stunning run. He only narrowly missed a putt on the 17th to make it seven in a row.

A three-hour, rain-enforced delay on day three did little to break Bjorn's stride, that opening aberration and further bogey at the fifth aside.

"I'm starting to warm to this place," joked Bjorn, who was not a fan of the controversial redesign by Ernie Els a few years ago. "I got off to a really rough start with a lot of loose swings early on but hit a really good shot on 10 and started to feel more comfortable.

"I probably drew a little on what I did on Thursday on the back nine, putts started to drop and you get in the zone where things start to go your way.

After two wins in 2013, he is now on track to confirm a first success of this year. Rory McIlroy matched Bjorn's six on the first. The Northern Irishman, too, was to recover. McIlroy closed at eight under after picking up a shot on the 17th.

"I was a little disappointed I didn't make a birdie at the last but after the start I had, 69 is a good score," said McIlroy, who twice visited sand on the first before thinning his third shot over the green.

"I feel like a low round is in me but I don't know if it's going to be good enough. I need to go out and shoot something similar to what Thomas did on the opening day. I've had big leads and let them slip, and come from behind and won. There's a lot of ways to win. Eighteen holes of golf is still a long way to go and if the conditions are favourable, then you never know what can happen."

Another top-10 finish, which would be an eighth in nine strokeplay events, beckons for McIlroy. This would be the most admirable of all of them, given the drama that engulfed his private life last week.

Anthony Wall had more than a third-round 67 to be pleased with. The Queens Park Rangers season ticket holder was out on the course as his team earned promotion to the Premier League courtesy of a late winner. At six under, Wall could yet cap a memorable weekend with tournament glory.

"I had just hit my tee shot at 17 and someone in the crowd said, 'Do you want to know the score?'" Wall said. "Then he smiled, and I said, OK then, so I knew what way the game had gone.

"I was disappointed that I was teeing off later today, because they were playing at 3.0. I just prayed that they were going to win and I have recorded it."

Yesterday's lowest round arrived from Francesco Molinari, who belied poor conditions to score 65. The Italian has now placed himself firmly in contention to win at the same aggregate as Wall.

Joost Luiten, Henrik Stenson, Chris Doak, Jamie Donaldson and Pablo Larrazabal are amongst others who have aspirations of hunting down Bjorn. A collapse from the leader, or something special from those in pursuit, is needed for Bjorn to be denied here. "There are more guys in the field than Thomas," Luiten said. "He can make mistakes, as well."

Peter Uilhein, who withdrew from this event, has also now pulled out of Monday's US Open qualifier at Walton Heath. The European Tour's rookie of the year from 2013 has been toiling with a back injury, which means he will not appear in the US Open for the first time as a professional, at Pinehurst next month. Pádraig Harrington and Matteo Manassero are amongst those who will feature at Walton Heath.

Stephen Gallacher, meanwhile, appeared nonplussed in his reaction to concerns aired by Tony Jacklin about the Scot's Ryder Cup potential.

Gallacher, who has won the Dubai Desert Classic in back-to-back years, carded a Saturday 68 at Wentworth and sits at three under par, though in a tie for 22nd.

Jacklin, a four-time European captain, had been asked about the possibility of Gallacher turning out in Paul McGinley's team this September at Gleneagles. What followed amounted to a verbal volley; if one which may yet inspire Gallacher. "I'm not try to be unkind, but Stephen Gallacher looks a bit iffy sometimes," Jacklin said. "He's a bit tender-minded maybe."

When informed of Jacklin's remarks, Gallacher said: "It's up to him, it's his opinion. "He can say what he wants. It is not going to bother me, put it that way. I have only met him once and that was about 12 years ago." The pair's next encounter may well be worth seeing. Observer

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