THEY’VE been kind to him so far, but it will be today when Craig Lee will discover if it’s his week to have the golfing gods fully on his side.
The “rubbish” that had been hindering him this season has been turned into darn good golf over the last couple of days.
His 69 amidst the carnage at Royal Aberdeen on Friday in the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open was a splendid effort; a 66 yesterday in conditions that were less testing, yet far from easy, was just as good.
He’s dropped only one shot in the last 40 holes – an incredible feat in light of how the course has played on those two days.
The productive double shift had hoisted Lee, who played this course first in the Scottish Boys’ Championship before paying subsequent visits on Tartan Tour duty, to six-under-par – the clubhouse lead when he finished.
It’s a welcome return to form for the 37-year-old from Stirling after some struggles this season.
“There has been good stuff, but there has just been too much rubbish,” he said of a run where he made fewer cuts that he missed.
“My short game has been a lot tidier this week and I have been able to move the ball into positions where it has been easier to get up and down.
“The course has been pretty kind to me as well. I’ve hit some horrendous shots, but I’ve managed to get away with it by being on the right side (of the hole).”
Lee teed off his third round in the group after defending champion Phil Mickelson. “I was joking with my caddie (Stephen Neilson) on the first tee that it would be good to take before and after pictures of the crowd when he is there and then my crowd when he leaves – it certainly dwindles,” he joked.
Lee was the tournament leader when he played with Mickelson in the final round of the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship in January. After a closing 77, he finished joint tenth but that experience and, even more so, getting into a play-off with Thomas Bjorn in the Omega European Masters in Switzerland prior to that, are what Lee intends to draw on today.
“I have been in contention a few times and maybe not capitalised, but hopefully I’ve got it sussed,” he said. “Switzerland was one where I really played well on the Sunday as well, so I’ll take that into the last round.”
Basking in glorious sunshine as the early starters headed out, the course was covered in a blanket of haar in mid-morning. It forced a stoppage at one point, with Robert Karlsson and Rory McIlroy waiting on the fifth tee for 30 minutes.
It almost proved a very painful experience for a poor spectator when they decided to move on. “I almost killed a spectator,” reported Karlsson later. “I hit it left, almost on to the sixth tee, but it hit his shoulder and bounced up on the tee to give me a great lie for the pitch. I gave him the ball, so he seemed pretty happy.”
The Swede was also happy with a 67 that moved him to four-under – a shot ahead of his playing partner after he signed for a 68.
For McIlroy, it was a ten-shot improvement on Friday’s effort, though four less than his course-record opening salvo.
“I got off to a bad start again (dropping a shot at the first then failing to birdie the par-5 second) and hit a couple of poor shots into the wind,” said McIlroy. “But it was much steadier than yesterday and there are enough positives in my game to give me confidence going into The Open.”
The defending champion next week feels just the same. Finishing with a bogey for the third day running irked Mickelson, especially after “hitting two of my best shots of the day on that hole”.
This, though, is proving good preparation for Hoylake. “I feel each day has gotten a little bit better and I’ve hit more good shots and fewer bad shots and that’s a good sign,” he said after a 70 for two-under.
While the wind had switched round a tad to be slightly more across than into faces on the back nine, European Tour officials had taken measures to make that stretch a bit easier than it proved in Friday’s second round.
At three holes – the 13th, 14th and 15th – the tees had all been moved up by between 20-30 yards, suggesting the carnage 24 hours earlier had perhaps been unexpected, at least the sheer scale of it.
Joost Luiten, a Ryder Cup contender, soon showed the test on that inward stretch had become less fearsome as he came home in 33, his two-under effort being matched in the very next group by David Drysdale.
“The conditions aren’t as tough as yesterday,” reported the Cockburnspath man after an effort that contained two eagles in the opening six holes, though the gloss was slightly taken off that feat by three dropped shots in between.
According to Drysdale, the punishing bunkers around the majestic Balgownie links have been responsible for big scores as much as the gorse or rough. “They’ve got faces all round them and the sand is soft and deep,” he said after watching his playing partner, Damian McGrane, take three shots to get out of one at the last in running up an eight. “And the third one was back down the fairway,” reported Drysdale.