Fleetwood and Pepperell, pictured below, were part of a four-way tie for the lead after opening rounds of 67, but while the former slumped to a birdie-free 77 on day two to fall eight shots off the pace, Pepperell’s 69 gave him a halfway total of eight under and a three-shot lead over compatriot Matt Wallace.
France’s Julien Guerrier was also five under with three holes remaining when play was suspended due to darkness. “I’m really excited because I do think I can improve my long game over the weekend. If I can do that then I want to take the mindset of dominating the event,” Pepperell said after a round containing five birdies and two bogeys.
“I’ve got to be aggressive, keep trying to play the shots and I don’t think there is anything to be afraid of. Get the speed of the greens and hole some putts and it’s all going to be rosy but we will see, there’s some good players up there who can challenge.”
Pepperell won his first European Tour title in Qatar earlier this season and has also recorded two runners-up finishes and tied for sixth in the Open at Carnoustie, despite playing the final round with a hangover.
“I think I’ve made quite a big stride mentally the last 18 months,” Pepperell said. “I remember at the Scottish Open feeling very comfortable on the Sunday. I thought I was going to win all the way and I wouldn’t have felt that before.”
Pepperell shot a closing 64 at Gullane and it took a stunning 60 from Brandon Stone to deny him the title, but such form has taken the 27-year-old from Oxford to 50th in the world rankings.
He could move inside the top 35 with a victory tomorrow, but Pepperell insists he will not be treading the well-worn path to the PGA Tour which such an elevated status makes possible.
“I’m not interested in playing over there in a full-time capacity,” he added. “I’m happy where I’m at. I get to see America five, six times a year and I think that’s perfect.”
A 78 in the third round of the US Open is the only time Fleetwood has posted a higher score this season and he will be hoping he bounces back in the same manner, a closing 63 at Shinnecock Hills equalling the championship record and seeing him finish just a shot behind winner Brooks Koepka.
“I just had a nightmare on the greens really,” Fleetwood explained. “I basically three-putted 11, 12 and 13 and never once got it right.”
Fleetwood is playing his 11th tournament in 14 weeks, a run which included all four FedEx Cup play-off events and Europe’s Ryder Cup triumph in Paris, but was not about to cite fatigue as a factor. “It’s an easy excuse but honestly I played fine,” added Fleetwood, who is hoping to catch Ryder Cup partner Francesco Molinari – who was two shots worse off after a 73 – and win the Race to Dubai for a second year in succession. “I’m obviously a long way back now but we don’t know what the weather conditions are going to be and if I hit it like that I feel perfectly OK about the weekend ahead.
“You have bad days but that’s the nature of the game and I’m not going to dwell on it. There’s a weekend’s golf and every shot counts at the end of the year – you never know what difference it’s going to make.”
Justin Rose safely made the halfway cut after a 72 left him on two over par. David Drysdale is the leading Scot, six shots adrift of Pepperell after a 73.