THE European Tour’s press officer, Michael Gibbons, hit the nail on the head.
“To borrow a Scottish phrase, you’ve gone a bit mental on the back nine,” he said in turning to Stephen Gallacher after welcoming his fellow Scot into the Media Centre following a jaw-dropping display in the third round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at the Emirates.
Four behind at the start, Gallacher, bidding to become the first player to claim back-to-back titles in the event’s 25-year history, had slipped six adrift of Rory McIlroy after covering his opening eight holes in a “boring” level par as the leader eagled the third to move to 13-under.
There’s something about the Majlis Course, however, that does funny things to Gallacher – he had five eagles when winning by three shots a year ago, having also finished joint second to Spaniard Rafael Cabrera-Bello in 2012 – and, by the end of the day, he’d astonishingly secured a two-shot lead over McIlroy.
The 39-year-old covered his final ten holes in ten-under, coming home in 28 shots for a 63 – equalling McIlroy’s opening salvo this week – and a 16-under-par total of 200. That nine-under inward effort matched the European Tour record for nine holes, joining just three other players to achieve that feat. In Gallacher’s case, the figures were 4-2-3-3-4-2-3-3-4.
“I don’t know where to start,” he admitted afterwards. “I was a bit ropey at the beginning [12-year-old son Jack found his ball in a bush as he miraculously salvaged a par at the second], was still feeling out of sorts after taking a bogey at the eighth but then hit a beautiful drive and 7-iron to the ninth to about three foot and then from then on I just never missed a shot.”
He had eight birdies and an eagle in that breathtaking run, the latter being set up by a peach of a drive at the par-5 13th that required only a 9-iron for his second into there. It left him with an almost identical 30-foot putt as one of his two eagles at the same hole last year.
“That was bizarre,” he admitted, the putting stroke that has been honed by American guru Dave Stockton staying hot as he then holed from the same distance at the 15th, 15 feet at the 16th and 12 feet at the last, chipping to a few inches at the 17th in between. “Every putt I hit went exactly where I hit it as they were going right in the middle,” he added.
Three ahead going into the final round last year, Gallacher recovered from a shaky start to win by that margin. Then, it was unheralded South African Richard Sterne doing the chasing. This time it’s world No.6 and two-times major winner McIlroy. Having played with both him and Tiger Woods in the opening two rounds this year, however, the Lothians man, ranked 67 in the world, is confident he won’t be fazed.
“It’s not the norm for me as there’s outside stuff you’ve got to get used to, but I thought I did all right playing with Rory and Tiger,” he reflected on not only hanging on to McIlroy’s coat tails but beating world No.1 Woods on both days. “There’s still a lot of golf to go, but the main thing after the front nine today was to get into contention. I’ve not just done that but put myself in proper contention and in with a good chance of winning.”
Bidding to make amends for letting the HSBC Abu Dhabi title slip through his grasp a fortnight ago following a careless rules infringement, McIlroy, one in front overnight, was first overtaken by Brooks Koepka as the American, winner of last year’s Scottish Hydro Challenge in Aviemore, holed every putt he looked at on the front nine.
The Northern Irishman then had no answer to Gallacher’s stunning thrust, but he is still an ominous threat, having enjoyed a good record on the course, too, since recording his maiden European Tour triumph in this event in 2009.
“Two shots behind going into tomorrow isn’t bad,” insisted McIlroy. “I’ve been in similar positions before and came out on top, so hopefully I can do it again. What Stevie [Gallacher] did was phenomenal – that’s some golf right there, especially as you’ve got some tough holes on the back nine. So that’s very, very impressive.”
With Koepka, who took ten shots more than Gallacher coming home, and dangerous Dane Thorbjorn Olesen (65) both only four shots off the lead, there’s no guarantee it will be a shoot-out between Gallacher and McIlroy, though they almost certainly won’t have to worry about Woods, tied for 37th. Bidding to become the first Scot to retain a title since Colin Montgomerie in 1999, the second of his three straight PGA victories at Wentworth, Gallacher will be sporting the same “lucky” last-day colours as last year here. “I’ll be wearing black and grey again,” he revealed, “though partly because they’re the only things I’ve got clean after being away for a month.”