THIS one is in the bag. Or is it? It’s almost unthinkable to imagine someone as methodical and efficient as Bernhard Langer blowing the eight-shot lead he is taking into the final round of the Senior Open Championship in South Wales.
Seven clear at the halfway stage after remarkable opening efforts of 65 and 66 on a fiery Royal Porthcawl, the 56-year-old German tacked on a solid 68 for a 14-under-total of 199 to strengthen his position in the over-50s major, which offers a top prize of £197,000.
The likelihood is that the chasing pack – Canadian Rick Gibson (66) lies second with Tom Watson (69) and Colin Montgomerie (72) two and three shots further back respectively – are battling for the runner-up spot in the final circuit. Yet, in this same event over the past two years, Langer has shown rare signs of weakness with the title in his sights.
At Turnberry in 2012, he led by one heading into the final circuit only to finish seven behind Fred Couples. Then, 12 months ago, in arguably one of the game’s most uncharacteristic lapses, he ran up a double-bogey 6 at the 72nd hole at Royal Birkdale and lost in a play-off to American Mark Wiebe.
Surely not this time? Especially with a lead as wide as the Bristol Channel. One, incidentally, that is the biggest in a senior major since Jack Nicklaus led by the same margin en route to winning the 1991 US Senior PGA.
“Probably,” replied Langer to being asked if it was indeed job done. “But there’s still a lot of golf to be played on a tough course and it is also supposed to be windy tomorrow.”
Out in 32 and doing his best to close the overnight gap on Langer, Montgomerie limped home in 40 to sit on three-under. “My back nine was horrendous,” he groaned, having surely seen his hopes of following up wins already this season in the US Senior PGA and US Senior Open turn from slim to zero.
He described starting for home with a double-bogey at the tenth then bogey at the 11th as “criminal”. He was also furious with a fellow competitor for not raking a bunker at the 17th. Montgomerie found it and had to play out backwards from a foot print. “It was someone’s mess,” he said. “Whoever he was should have raked it. It’s poor at any level, never mind in a professional sport.”
With squeals of enjoyment coming from the beach at the back of the first green, Watson thrilled both the paying and non-paying onlookers by rolling in an 18-foot birdie putt there. Having started nine behind, though, it was asking a lot of the 64-year-old – even one as remarkable as him – to get within striking distance of Langer and so it proved.
Upon arriving on the second green, having pulled his approach a tad, the leader would almost certainly have settled for getting down in two putts from 40 feet – it went downhill, uphill and sideways – and moving on. Even he looked surprised that it went in but it did. The lead was up to eight.
In fairness to Montgomerie, he was trying like a bear in the match ahead to put even a smidgen of pressure on the leader. He birdied the fourth, sixth and eighth only to see each thrust matched by Langer, who, after that early bonus, also picked up shots at the fourth and sixth. Sitting seven-under at the turn, Montgomerie’s first double-bogey of the week couldn’t have come at a worst possible time. In trouble off the tee at the tenth, he took four shots to find the putting surface. The resultant 6 came just as Langer was getting up and down from a bunker at the ninth and Montgomerie’s momentum was suddenly halted as he dropped nine adrift.
Momentarily, after the Scot also spilled another shot as a result of short-siding himself at the 11th, the gap between the pair became ten shots. Langer, though, then dropped a shot at the ninth – his first blip since the opening hole in the second round. There were no more mistakes. His drive at the last went more than 400 yards in the bouncy conditions. The lead would have been even bigger if he’d converted an eight-foot eagle chance. “I played very nicely and my long putting in particular was very good,” said Langer. “My goal was not to relinquish any shots to the rest of the field and, though I’ve only increased it by one, it is better than the other way.”
Away from the heat of battle – if there has been such a thing since Langer took control of things – big jumps were made by Irishman Philip Walton (64) and American Jeff Sluman (65).