WITH 16 players covered by just five shots, the British Masters leaderboard at Woburn is as busy as the nearby M1 during rush hour. There’s a Thai in the mix, a Dane and even a Paraguayan. The home crowd will be flocking to the Bedfordshire venue today, however, hoping to see either the arrival of a new English star, Matt Fitzpatrick, or the rejuvenation of one of their favourite sons, Luke Donald.
With a circuit to go on the Marquess’ Course, 21-year-old Fitzpatrick, who is seeking his maiden European Tour victory, shares the lead on 12-under-par with Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat, who is bidding to complete a notable double on British soil after winning the Saltire Energy Paul Lawrie Match Play at Murcar Links earlier in the season.
After a third round that was played in autumnal conditions, just 24 hours after it almost felt like summer had returned, the pair are one ahead of Dane Soren Kjeldsen and Paraguay’s Fabrizio Zanotti, with Donald a shot further back alongside compatriot Richard Bland, as well as Irishman Shane Lowry and Romain Wattel from France.
Having notched up four top-three finishes this year, no-one has been knocking louder at the door on the European circuit this season than Fitzpatrick, and the likeable Sheffield lad dug deep on a day when his patience was tested to stay on course to make the breakthrough with a wire-to-wire success. “It was a battle out there,” admitted the former US Amateur champion after recovering from an early bogey to chisel out a three-under-par 68 to match the clubhouse target set by Aphibarnrat in the match ahead as he signed for a 67. “I sort of scrambled it around in a good score to still be leading, which is nice. It’s impossible not to be thinking about it (a first win), but my first aim tomorrow will still remain finishing as high as possible.”
Through both having spells at Northwestern University outside Chicago, Donald and Fitzpatrick have become acquainted. “I’ve spent some time with Luke over the last couple of months and now it will be nice to sort of go head-to-head with him in the final round,” revealed Fitzpatrick. The way he’s shaping up, he could go on to emulate Donald by becoming a world No 1 in the future. Fitzpatrick, though, dismissed a suggestion that their games are similar. “I know people say that, but I don’t think it’s true,” he said, “Luke’s short game is absolutely unbelievable whereas that is something I’m always working on and tee to green is more my strength.”
On yesterday’s evidence, putting is certainly one of Aphibarnrat’s strengths. The 26-year-old, who beat Swede Robert Karlsson in the final in Aberdeen to claim his third European Tour title, rolled in an outrageous 35-foot birdie putt with a ten-foot left-to-right break at the 14th and was just as pleased with a two-putt from 50 feet to save par at the last. “I could have stood there for one or two days and I still don’t think I’d have made the putt on the 14th,” he said with a huge smile on his face. “As well as the break on it, it was downhill and the only thing that could stop it was the hole. I said ‘wow’ when it dropped in.” Asked about his chances of going on to win, he added, ominously perhaps: “I think I’m playing better than when I won in Scotland.”
Having claimed the Irish Open at Royal County Down, 40-year-old Kjeldsen is also trying to make it a links-parkland double this year. “It wasn’t that easy out there today,” he said after a 69. “We were out in the last group and the greens were not as smooth as yesterday morning.” Zanotti didn’t seem to have many problems on the surfaces as he stormed into contention with a 66 that was illuminated by an eagle at the seventh. Only Donald, whose last win on the European Tour came in its flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, in 2012, eclipsed that effort with a flawless 65, the foundations for which were laid by him covering nine holes from the seventh in six-under-par. “I would love to get back in the winners’ circle again,” admitted the 37-year-old, who tumbled down the world rankings after leaving his long-time coach, Pat Goss, but has started to show signs of his old consistency since linking up with him again. “My swing is back to being similar to what it was while my work on the range is back to what it was before,” he said.
Three off the lead at the start of the day, Marc Warren’s hopes of victory now look slim after he slipped nine shots back following a 74 that concluded with a triple-bogey 7 at the last, where he four-putted. Earlier, Craig Lee dropped a shot there yet Stirling man was still in a chirpy mood. “I’ve never been happier to see you boys on a Saturday,” he said after initiating a group hug with the Scottish golf scribes (all two of us). It was a first, certainly for this correspondent, and was reference to the 38-year-old having scraped into the final two rounds as he fights for his European Tour future.
Lying 122nd in the Race to Dubai, Lee is around £25,000 short of climbing into the safety zone with three events left. A top-30 finish tonight would do the trick, and it’s possible after signing for a six-birdie 69 to sit joint-48th on two-under. “If I can go out tomorrow and shoot four-under and finish in the top 20, hopefully it will be job done,” he said.