Johnnie Walker: Bernd Wiesberger into joint lead

Bernd Wiesberger lines up a putt on the seventh on his way to a 65. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Bernd Wiesberger lines up a putt on the seventh on his way to a 65. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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WHEN Bernd Wiesberger became the first person to drop out of the five-man marathon play-off won by Thomas Bjorn in the Johnnie Walker Championship two years ago, scaling the Alps in his native Austria without a harness probably seemed an easier proposition than securing a place in the European team for the 2014 Ryder Cup.

With competition for places on that side likely to be tougher than ever, the odds are still stacked against the 27-year-old from Vienna becoming the first Austrian to take part in the inter-continental contest, yet don’t be surprised if he’s on Paul McGinley’s radar in 12 months’ time.

Joint-leader with Argentinean Ricardo Gonzalez in the £1.4 million Johnnie Walker Championship after a seven-under-par 65 on the PGA Centenary Course, Wiesberger, lying 61st, is the fifth-highest ranked player in this week’s field, having underlined his potential with a brace of victories last season – in the Ballantine’s Championship in Korea and Lyoness Open in his homeland.

On a day of low scoring – the combination of benign conditions and a less punishing course set-up than in recent years – Wiesberger didn’t put a foot wrong before finishing with a hat-trick of birdies as both he and Gonzalez broke free from a logjam on six-under.

“This course not only suits my eye but it also feels a bit like home due to some of these slopes and sidehill lies,” he admitted after edging ahead of a group that includes England’s Mark Foster, another player involved in that shoot-out in 2011.

By his own admission, Wiesberger probably wasn’t ready to win on that occasion. “My Tour card wasn’t safe and I still needed to get that feeling of how you need to play to win,” he said. “I was obviously disappointed but, looking back, it was progress.”

Only time will tell if he can maintain that progress to the extent that he’s back here in 13 months’ time on Ryder Cup duty. But, if he can reproduce the consistency that saw him make 20 cuts in a row before seeing that streak end in the recent USPGA Championship, it will certainly be a possibility.

“I don’t want to put that (the Ryder Cup) too much into my mindset,” he said. “But, if I keep playing like I did today on this course and for the next 12 months, then I don’t see why I can be here. The Ryder Cup course is not too bad, either, for putting your name up there.”

According to McGinley, that course is playing a lot different this week than in the past. It suited the Irishman yesterday as he lit up a “poor season so far” with a four-under 68, but the 46-year-old is keeping an open mind as to how it will be set up next year.

“I learned a lot about the course today,” admitted the European captain, plucking a yardage book out of his back pocket to display a raft of notes he’d taken on the way round. “It’s a different set-up than we’ve been used to in the past. The rough isn’t as severe, the fairways are firm and running and the greens are also firm.

“The course will be set up to suit us (Europe) for the Ryder Cup. The jury is still out as to how that will be and I’ll be getting feedback from players, including the likes of Jose Maria Olazabal, after this event. But today was a huge learning curve for me.”

As far as his own game is concerned, there is probably little McGinley doesn’t know already. And, though pleased to show he can still get round in a good number, he has no ambitions to try and get on his own team.

“It’s nice to be asked about my golf,” he joked on emerging from the recorder’s hut to be met by members of the Fourth Estate. “I don’t want the captaincy to be an excuse so it’s nice to play well. But this is just one good round.

“There’s no way you can be a playing captain in the Ryder Cup so I will probably not be including myself on the points list.”

Australian Brett Rumford, runner-up to Paul Lawrie 12 months ago – the Aberdonian opened his title defence with back-to-back birdies and finished two-under – saw a last-hole birdie attempt to join morning starter Wiesberger at the top of the leaderboard lip out before Gonzalez did get to seven-under with an effort that contained an eagle and seven birdies.

Ross Fisher, a member of the 2010 Ryder Cup team in Wales, is alongside Foster in the group on six-under, as is namesake Olly, while Tom Lewis added to a decent day for the English contingent as he signed for a 67.

While Lewis, who started his professional career with a sensational victory in the Portugal Masters two years ago, is in danger of needing a visit to the Qualifying School later in the year – he’s languishing 193rd on the money-list – the 2011 Walker Cup player is still a better golfer than a property developer.

The 22-year-old is just about to move into a new house just a wedge away from where his parents live in Welwyn Garden City and revealed how his “very expensive tastes” had led to spiralling costs. “I maybe went over the top with the fancy stuff and I thought I would be playing a little bit better than I did,” he joked.