CRAIG Lee, a laid-back individual, will have Open champion Phil Mickelson for company when he bids to create a golfing “fairytale” today. Another major winner, Rory McIlroy, would also have been in the final group in the £1.6 million HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship if he hadn’t lumbered himself with a two-shot penalty for a rules infringement that was brought to his attention by a Scottish caddie, Dave Renwick.
At the end of a dramatic day under the desert sun, Lee, sitting on 12-under following a 69, found himself leading by two shots from Mickelson, who made his move with a spectacular nine-under 63 in a testing morning wind, and India’s Gaganjeet Bhullar (66), with McIlroy a further shot back after a potential 68 became two shots more.
“I’m pretty laid back,” confessed Lee after looking as though he was sauntering his way round in the Tartan Tour events he used to sharpen his skills despite peering at the leaderboards to see two of the game’s heavyweights breathing down his neck. “But, with players who have majors and other hefty accolades between them, you can’t not be nervous a little bit.”
Joint-leader at halfway despite the fact the Scot hadn’t fired on all cylinders, the 36-year-old “found a swing on the range” yesterday morning. He duly produced a majestic ball-striking display, his driving in particular being just as impressive as McIlroy here, which is saying something.
It’s a matter for debate whether Lee’s biggest win so far is the 2009 Northern Open or a six-shot EuroPro Tour triumph at Bovey Castle in Devon a year later. This event, though, has form when it comes to golfing Davids beating Goliath. Robert Rock upstaged Tiger Woods in 2012, while Jamie Donaldson pipped Justin Rose 12 months ago.
“Fairytales do happen,” noted Lee following the five-birdie effort that set up the golden chance for him to go one better after being pipped in a play-off for the European Masters by Thomas Bjorn in Switzerland last September. “So I just have to go out tomorrow and play the best I can. The quality of players behind me is probably nothing that I’ve been used to before, but it will be exciting.”
McIlroy looked as though he was going to be Lee’s closest challenger until, after coming off the 18th green, he was told by Renwick, caddying for Argentine Ricardo Gonzalez in the same group, to have a look at a drop he’d taken from a spectator walkway.
“The rules guys couldn’t see anything on the video so we [McIlroy, Renwick and European Tour chief referee John Paramor] went back out there and checked the divot from where I hit the shot and it was clear that my foot had to be on the line to play the shot,” reported McIlroy of breaching Rule 25/1.
Taking it on the chin, the 24-year-old admitted it was “unfortunate”, especially when he’d gained no advantage through the drop in question ending up in a “bad lie”, and he was adamant there was no animosity towards Renwick, an experienced bag man having won majors with Jose Maria Olazabal, Vijay Singh and Steve Elkington.
“You have to adhere to the rules and he was pointing out something he thought was questionable,” added McIlroy.