HOME favourite Louis Oosthuizen has another player sporting the Nike swoosh challenging him in the $4 million Volvo Golf Champions, the European Tour’s ‘Tournament of Champions’.
Twelve months ago, the 2010 Open champion had Scott Jamieson as one of his nearest challengers at the halfway stage at Durban Country Club before overturning a five-shot deficit in the final round to pip the Glaswegian.
This time around, the leaderboard is more packed – just four shots cover the top ten – but there was a distinct feeling of deja vu seeing Englishman Tommy Fleetwood sitting in a share of top spot with Oosthuizen as well as Dutchman Joost Luiten on seven-under.
Like Jamieson, Fleetwood is a Nike stable member, though the similarities don’t end there. Jamieson played in this event last year on the back of his maiden Tour win and now Fleetwood is enjoying the same bonus, the 22-year-old having secured his spot in the elite field on the back of a play-off victory in the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles.
“That win has made me a better golfer by an absolute mile,” he admitted after carding a five-under 67, an effort matched by Luiten with the help of an albatross 2 at the tenth. “It also gave me a lot of experience as I played with Henrik Stenson, Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood in the ‘Final Series’.”
While a win here wouldn’t do his chances any harm, Fleetwood reckons he’ll have his work cut out to be back at Gleneagles in September as a member of the European Ryder Cup team. But, with Luiten as well as Frenchman Victor Dubuisson and Italian Matteo Manassero all sitting in the top five after the first 36 holes of 2014, he believes Europe has young talent to match that of rising American star Jordan Spieth.
“The Ryder Cup isn’t my motivation at the moment,” added Fleetwood, who won the 2009 Scottish Stroke-Play Championship as an amateur. “It would be great to play in it one day because it is the best sporting event in the world, but there are a lot of guys ahead of me for this one as it stands right now. A few more wins wouldn’t do me any harm, for sure, but, at this point in my career, I’m just trying to learn and make the most that I can out of my opportunities. Jordan Spieth, of course, has been a bit special over in America (where the 20-year-old was Rookie of the Year last season and catapulted himself into the world’s top 20), but guys like me, Matteo and Victor all grew up playing junior golf together and now we’ve all won European Tour events, which is great. From a selfish point of view, it’s great to have them – as well as the likes of Chris Wood and Joost Luiten – around because it motivates you.”
On a day when the wind had swung round 180 degrees from the first round, Oosthuizen, one behind Frenchman Raphael Jacquelin at the start, stayed on course for a successful title defence with a 69 featuring four birdies. Compatriot and 2012 winner Branden Grace bagged two eagles – at the third and 13th – in his 67 to sit four off the pace, but neither of those two efforts got the shot of the day vote.
It went to Luiten for the 4-iron from 248 yards that secured his albatross – a feat achieved by only Greenock’s Chris Doak in the Madeira Island Open on last season’s European Tour.
“It’s my first albatross,” declared Luiten, last year’s KLM Open winner. “It pitched exactly where I wanted just in front of the green and released up the slope to go straight in.”
Luiten has his sights set on Gleneagles after winning four points from five to help the Continentals record a first Seve Trophy success in 13 years in Paris last October. His sole defeat, ironically, came at the hands of Fleetwood in the singles. “The Ryder Cup is my main goal this year,” he said. “If I can win an event like this, that would definitely boost my chances.”
Hopes of a Scot landing the title appear slim. Three off the pace heading out, Colin Montgomerie is now seven back after a 74 saw him slip from joint-fifth to a share of 17th on level-par, while Stephen Gallacher is joint-28th on three-over following a 73 that included a triple-bogey 8 at the eighth, where he lost a ball from the tee.
By the time Padraig Harrington had reached the same hole, the two-times Open champion had lost Ronan Flood, his long-time caddie. Apparently suffering from a bout of food poisoning, Flood couldn’t continue beyond the sixth hole, where Pat Cashman, a 65-year-old Dubliner and one-time golf photographer, switched off from holiday mode to take over the caddying duties.
Harrington ran up a double-bogey two holes later but heaped praise on Cashman for proving an able stand-in as he shot a second straight 71.
While an exciting finish lies in prospect here, next week’s HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship has lost one of its star attractions after Justin Rose, the US Open champion, pulled out of the event last night. A statement from his management company revealed the Englishman has developed a “mild case of tendinitis in his right shoulder” and will also miss the Farmers Insurance Open on the PGA Tour the following week.