BMW PGA Championship: Molinari leading race

Francesco Molinari is based in London and is used to weather. Picture: Getty

Francesco Molinari is based in London and is used to weather. Picture: Getty

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‘LUKE Who’s Back’ has been the slogan for this week’s BMW PGA Championship.

How unfortunate that proved to be as not only Luke Donald, the winner of the European Tour’s flagship event for the last two years, but also four of his Ryder Cup team-mates from last September’s ‘Miracle at Medinah’ all made premature exits at Wentworth.

Also feeling as miserable as the weather – it rained heavily on and off for most of the day and was unseasonably cold, too, especially for this neck of the woods – was world No 2 Rory McIlroy, last week’s Bulgaria winner Graeme McDowell, Ryder Cup talisman Ian Poulter and top-ranked Scot Paul Lawrie.

After racism rows the previous two days, losing so many star attractions is the last thing the tournament sponsor would have wanted.

Italian Francesco Molinari, another member of that winning team in Chicago, is leading the race for a £666,576 top prize on six-under after a joint best-of-the-day 68 – Marc Warren is in the four-man group sharing second a shot behind – while the presence of both Open champion Ernie Els and world No 12 Lee Westwood just off the pace will certainly please the BMW power-brokers.

But, instead of battling it out for one of the game’s most ­coveted prizes over the next two days on the Burma Road course, McIlroy and Co will be gracing the presence of some other major sporting occasions in ­Europe this weekend. According to reports, McIlroy and Poulter are both heading to Wembley for tonight’s Champions League final while McIlroy could also be taking in the Monaco Grand Prix tomorrow before possibly moving on to Paris, where girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki meets ­Britain’s Laura Robson in the first round of the French Open.

As one wag here suggested, some time on the driving range might have been more beneficial for McIlroy after the Northern Irishman’s frustrating season continued as he missed the cut for the second year running at the Surrey venue. Four-over for the tournament with two holes to play, the 23-year-old needed to finish birdie-birdie but ran up a double-bogey 7 at the 17th. His 75 for 149 was three shots too many.

“It’s a tough golf course and even tougher in these conditions,” said the two-time major winner after failing where a trio of Ryder Cup captains – Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria ­Olazabal and Paul McGinley – all succeeded as they progressed on two-over.

By the sounds of things, McIlroy is happier these days playing with the sun on his back, which should serve as a warning to anyone that fancies his chances in this year’s Open Championship at Muirfield unless it’s hit by a heatwave. “I’m definitely ­looking forward to getting back into some golf where I’m not playing in four layers,” he added of returning to the PGA Tour next week for The Memorial at Muirfield Village.

McDowell, fresh from winning the World Match Play, also crashed out on five-over as a poor record in this event continued for the Portrush man. “That’s probably one of the more brutal rounds of golf conditions-wise that I’ve played in a few years,” he reported. “But it is what it is and we’ll be back. I just need to try to see if they can get this tournament played in June or July or something. I need this golf course with a little fire in it, a little heat. It’s a long old slog for me out there not being able to move it a lot off the tee when it’s this cold and wet.”

Having gone off the boil since inspiring Europe to that incredible final-day comeback last autumn, Poulter’s exit on 152 was no real surprise. Few bets, however, would have been placed on Donald suffering the same fate after the gun went off on Thursday morning. After hardly putting a foot wrong over the previous two years on this course, little went right for him this time around.

With a six-over-par total, he was soon be heading off to see if he could arrange an early flight back to Chicago for the Donald clan. “It’s disappointing to miss a cut, especially here at Wentworth,” admitted the event’s main poster boy. “But I’ll be back. I think failure is a bigger ­motivator for me than success.”

It wouldn’t come as a huge surprise if success on this occasion in the heart of the Surrey stockbroker belt fell to Molinari. Similar to Donald, the Italian is renowned for accuracy and few have won round here from deep in the trees. Like everyone else, he didn’t find the weather to his liking but a round containing seven birdies brightened the mood considerably.

“I try to erase it from my memory when the weather is like that,” admitted Molinari, who lives in London and is used to what the British climate can throw up. “Last year in Scotland [at Castle Stuart] comes to mind because the last round was quite windy. But I live over here now and it’s been like this most of the winter, so I’m used to it now.”

Breathing down the leader’s neck are Warren, Spaniard ­Alejandro Canizares and South African George Coetzee after they all carded matching 70s as well as Englishman Mark Foster, who also moved to five-under after a 69. Molinari’s young compatriot, Matteo Manassero, and England’s Eddie Pepperell are a further shot back, with Els, Westwood and 2010 winner Simon Khan in a posse on three-under.

As well as showing “maturity” on the course – taking a 4-iron off the tee at the last was a ­perfect example of that – ­Warren is enjoying the fact he recently became a father for the first time. Son Archie is here this week and the two-time European Tour winner admitted: “It [parenthood] definitely changes you as a person, hopefully for the better. Even last night, after a good round, it still helps. You usually go back and think about it, critique your round and what you could have done better. But ­seeing him and [wife] Laura, it totally changes what you think.”

While Warren and Montgomerie were joined in the final two rounds by David ­Drysdale (level), 2004 winner Scott Drummond (one-over), Chris Doak (one-over), Richie Ramsay ­(two-over) and Greig Hutcheon (two-over), Lawrie agonisingly missed out after an eagle putt at the last stopped an inch short.

Earlier, Craig Lee holed a ­bunker shot there for a 3 but he, too, fell just the other side of the cut mark. Joint-third overnight, Scott Henry also missed out after a 79 – 11 shots more than his opening effort.

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