THE fans probably feel they are due a home win after Marc Warren’s painful late collapse in last month’s Scottish Open. With no fewer than five Saltire standard-bearers in the top 20, including leader Paul Lawrie, heading into the final round of the Johnnie Walker Championship, compensation could be forthcoming in Perthshire today.
Continuing to ride on his Ryder Cup wave, Lawrie took over at the head of affairs in the £1.4 million event after carding a five-under-par 67 for a 12-under-par total of 204. He leads by one from Romain Wattel, a 21-year-old Frenchman who underlined his potential when winning the Scottish Open Amateur Stroke Play Championship at Glasgow Gailes two years ago. He’s in the hunt for another slice of glory in the home of golf after a best-of-the-week 63.
On a perfect day for scoring – it wasn’t until just after Lawrie, playing in the second last group, had finished that the heavens opened for the first time at the Perthshire venue, Stephen Gallacher moved into third spot on nine-under, while Colin Montgomerie (69 for seven-under), Richie Ramsay (70 for six-under) and Chris Doak (69 for five-under) are also still in contention for a £233,330 top prize.
As has been the case all week, Ryder Cup matters were once again a major sideshow.
Forty-eight hours ahead of schedule, Jose Maria Olazabal confirmed Miguel Angel Jimenez as his fourth vice captain, the Spaniard joining Thomas Bjorn, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley in the European backroom team for the match at Medinah next month.
“I now have four great friends behind me – four guys I know, four guys I trust and four guys familiar with this contest, which is so important,” said Olazabal of that appointment, which had been widely expected but delayed to give Jimenez one last chance here to stake a claim for one of the two wild cards up for grabs.
Having slipped six shots behind Lawrie – he also has 12 players between him and the leader – it is looking increasingly likely that Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts is going to have to rely on one of those picks, which Olazabal will announce at noon tomorrow up in the Gleneagles Hotel.
The strain of giving it his all in a bid to make the team under his own steam – he needs to finish in the top two tonight – is starting to take its toll on the 29-year-old, but he vowed to stage one last hurrah in a bid to knock Martin Kaymer out of the tenth automatic spot.
“I’m fighting like a dog, showing passion and playing with my guts,” said Colsaerts after signing for a 71 that had started with a brace of birdies but had the momentum sucked from it by bogeys at the fourth, eighth and tenth. “My strategy now is simple – to shoot the best round of my career.”
Having been able to play carefree in the knowledge that he’d secured a return to the Ryder Cup stage since his one and only appearance in 1999, Lawrie is on course for the eighth title triumph of his European Tour career and third on home soil, having already landed an Open Championship at Carnoustie in 1999 and a Dunhill Links success at St Andrews two years later.
“This week has been a lot easier for me. The big thing is I’ve been able to work on my rhythm, which is what I was doing at the start of the year,” said the Aberdonian after a round that contained seven birdies.
He also benefitted from a stroke of luck at the long ninth, where he just avoided straying into the water by a foot with a wayward approach and was able to escape with par.
“If I can hang on tomorrow it would be huge to have two wins [he claimed the Qatar Masters for a second time earlier in the season] in a Ryder Cup year.
“That would also see me go into the match full of confidence,” added the leader, who is set to see more of the American, Bob Rotella, in the future after the leading sports psychologist gave him some useful advice during the recent USPGA Championship. Wattel, who is mentored by Gregory Havret, a former winner of this event, moved into contention with a stunning ten-birdie round, while Gallacher, who already has four top-ten finishes under his belt around here, has the coveted prize in his sights again after an eight-birdie effort.
“After opening with a 75, I said I needed three really low ones and now I just need one more,” said the Bathgate man.
Montgomerie, the tournament chairman, hasn’t tasted victory since 2007 but is eyeing a return to the winner’s enclosure after a round that put a bounce back in his step.
“That was the best golf I’ve played in a number of years,” said the 2010 Ryder Cup captain. “It was disappointing not to shoot lower than 69 but I’m looking forward to playing again, which is great. I’ve got my hunger back. I have three events in a row after this one and I’m looking forward to them now.”
The stage is set for one heck of an exciting finish.