Johnnie Walker Championship: Gallacher back in groove

Stephen Gallacher finished his round with a birdie, giving him eight-under-par to leave him three off the pace. Picture: SNS
Stephen Gallacher finished his round with a birdie, giving him eight-under-par to leave him three off the pace. Picture: SNS
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AS HE reflected on the round of the day – a flawless eight-under-par 64 – you sensed that Stephen Gallacher still felt he’d have a mountain to climb in today’s final round of the £1.4 million Johnnie Walker Championship.

“It’s out of my hands,” he replied, on being asked if he’d given himself a chance of Gleneagles glory. “It depends how the leaders go. If they shoot 63 or 64, I’m up against it a wee bit.”

Three behind he might still be but, on another benign day at next year’s Ryder Cup venue, it was undoubtedly a welcome bonus for the Scot that neither Ricardo Gonzalez or Bernd Wiesberger, the top two at the halfway stage, came close to those scores after being unable to maintain the fireworks that lit up the opening two days in Perthshire.

After his brace of 65s, Gonzalez, the 43-year-old Argentinian, came back down to earth with a less spectacular 70, two fewer than Wiesberger, the Austrian who made the five-man play-off won by Thomas Bjorn here two years ago.

At the end of a third round watched by a healthy gathering at the north end of Glendevon, Gonzalez is locked in the lead with young Englishman Tommy Fleetwood, who dropped a shot at the last in his 67, with Swede Fredrik Andersson Hed, joint-third a year ago, one back and Wiesberger lying alongside Gallacher in a tie for fourth.

That Gallacher, winner of the Dubai Desert Classic earlier in the season, is in the reckoning with 18 holes to go is proof, indeed, of being aware of the injured golfer. The 38-year-old hurt his back washing a car earlier in the week and has arrived here each day following a 45-minute road journey from his home in Linlithgow in chronic pain.

Yesterday was the closest he came to having to withdraw. “I was only able to hit two shots and had to go and get some more physio so I could get out on the course,” he reported in an after-round medical bulletin.

As the pain and stiffness eased off a bit, Gallacher’s game warmed up. Delighting the sizeable gallery following him, he came home in 30, a six-under-par effort topped off by a splendid birdie at the last, where he couldn’t go for the green in two after missing the fairway but made amends by rolling in a ten-footer.

“I played for a couple of months last year with a torn ligament in my knee and it’s amazing, because having an injury almost takes the focus off you,” said Gallacher, bidding to land a third home success in this event in seven years after wins for Marc Warren (2007) and Paul Lawrie (2012).

While Lawrie’s hopes of making a successful defence of the title are now slim after a 71 left him eight shots off the pace, his third-round playing partner, Scott Henry, is just behind Gallacher heading into the final circuit after an error-free 67.

“This was the first time I’ve ever played with Paul, even in a practice round, and it was good fun,” said the 26-year-old Clydebank man, lying 139th in this season’s Race to Dubai and needing a strong finish to his rookie campaign to still be a card holder at the start of next season.

Confident he will, Henry added: “My focus tomorrow will be on trying to catch the leaders and the way I have played the last couple of days I don’t see any reason why I can’t.”

Like Henry, Fleetwood won the Scottish Open Amateur Stroke-Play Championship in his amateur days – in the latter’s case at Murcar Links in 2009, the year after the Southport player lost to Dutchman Reinier Saxton in the final of the Amateur Championship at Turnberry.

“I absolutely adore Scotland – my parents, Sue and Pete, would move here in a heartbeat if they could – and it’s been good to me in the past,” admitted Fleetwood, who is confident he can convert five top-20s this season into a maiden European Tour victory this evening.

“When I turned up here last year, I wasn’t even in the top 150 in the Order of Merit,” reflected the 22-year-old, who, in 2011, became the youngest-ever Challenge Tour money-list winner. “I didn’t really know that many people [on the European Tour] and it was horrible. I’m not crying about it, but it’s just that hard out here.

“In all honesty, I’m not sure I expected to still be playing on this Tour this year, but I managed to play great in the second half of last year and have carried it on.”

In his schooldays, Fleetwood had a passion for drama. He even played Macbeth once but will be hoping that, by not actually mentioning that name himself in his post-round press conference, he won’t be struck by any curse today.