TIGER Woods may have moved into contention in the £4.3 million Turkish Airlines Open after a scintillating course-record 63, but the world No 1 should not be fooled into thinking that the sight of white towels being brandished was a sign of surrender by the European Tour’s finest.
On an idyllic day on the Mediterranean coast close to Antalya, Woods certainly earned a fair chunk of his reported £1.5m appearance fee with a flawless nine-under-par second round on the Montgomerie Maxx Royal, an effort he says might have been even better.
“It could have been pretty special as I missed four birdie putts inside ten feet,” reported the 14-times major winner after trimming seven shots off his opening salvo in moving to 11-under for the tournament.
By special, did he mean that a 59 had been on the cards? “No, I wasn’t that low that early,” he added, though 30 blows to turn is surely pretty low in most people’s books. He moved to six-under with his sixth birdie of the round at the tenth but then cooled down for four holes before picking up three shots in the last four.
“I’m right there – that’s the whole idea,” declared Woods of slotting himself in a shot behind four joint-leaders – Swede Henrik Stenson, Englishman Ian Poulter, Frenchman Victor Dubuisson and South African Justin Walters – in the penultimate event in the European Tour’s new Final Series.
With all due respect to Dubuisson and Walters, it’s all about Stenson, Poulter and Woods heading into the final two rounds. Trying to finish ahead of the game’s top player is incentive enough for Stenson and Poulter, but they’ve got a fascinating sideshow going on.
Stenson, winner of the FedEx Cup already this season, leads the Race to Dubai with Poulter, in fourth, also in with a chance of being crowned Europe’s No 1 this season. As the pair were practising for the Final Series at Lake Nona in Florida, Stenson offered Poulter odds of 10-1 that he couldn’t catch him on the money-list and the Englishman wagered $100. The bet also included the loser serving drinks to the winner on a night out.
Trying to wind up Stenson, Poulter pulled a towel out of his bag and put it over his arm waiter-style towards the end of the delayed first round, with the Swede doing exactly the same thing when he arrived on the 18th tee in the afternoon to find Poulter’s group still there due to a delay in front.
“I think a thousand bucks isn’t an issue to him, but pouring my drinks all night may be a big problem,” joked Poulter, who finished like a train in China last weekend and is firing on all cylinders again here.
“I had five weeks off and it’s fantastic,” admitted Europe’s Ryder Cup talisman after signing for a second straight 66. “I always play well once I’m rested and once I’ve done a lot of hard work – and it’s no different this year. I played some good golf at the [WGC] Match-Play and at the Open Championship this year, but I’m playing as well now as I have all season and it’s a good stretch for that to be the case.”
Woods, who had eight holes of his opening round to complete after Thursday’s three-hour delay due to thunderstorms, got up at 3.30am but that was to watch a college football match involving his alma mater, Stanford, against Oregon Ducks. He overcame a lack of sleep to put himself in a position to challenge for a sixth win this season.
“It’s bunched and we’re going to have to continue going low – 20-plus probably – the way the course is set up and how soft it’s playing,” said Woods. “It’s so receptive that it lends itself to a lot of birdies. The ball is not rolling out or bouncing out so you can be aggressive. No matter what iron you’re hitting, you can just fire right at it.”
While Woods said he was unaware of the bet between Poulter and Stenson, he certainly knows how well the Swede has been playing since he kick-started his season with good finishes in both the Scottish Open and Open Championship. “He’s got it going pretty good – he’s playing consistent. He’s also playing hurt, too,” said Woods of the forearm injury the Swede has been nursing since the Final Series started.
While that has had some black clouds cast over it due to Ernie Els boycotting next week’s DP World Tour Championship over its entry rules, a thrilling finish is now in store and, though Stenson is in the driving seat, Poulter certainly has the bit between his teeth.
“Sitting at the top of the leaderboard is a nice position to be in going into the weekend,” said the Englishman, who is chasing his first victory since the HSBC Champions just over a year ago. “There’s some good names there and it’s going to be a fun chase down the stretch. There’s also going to be plenty [banter].”
While Dubuisson, lying 49th, has secured his place in next week’s finale, Walters, 20 places lower, needs a top-ten finish here to climb into the all-important top 60. But, having holed a monster putt across the last green in the Portugal Masters last month to retain his card, the 33-year-old is now on course to deliver another poignant achievement so soon after the death of his mother.