Wentworth: 69 keeps Garcia in contention

Sergio Garcia strips off his sweater as the sun comes out at Wentworth. Picture: Getty
Sergio Garcia strips off his sweater as the sun comes out at Wentworth. Picture: Getty
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NOW wouldn’t it be ironic? Having left his stain on the event following a borderline racist remark aimed at Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia could easily walk away tonight as the winner of the £4 million BMW PGA Championship.

He’s certainly in contention, lying just four shots off the lead after a four-under-par 68 at Wentworth, where the crowds are helping the Spaniard get over his “sick” feeling on the eve of the European Tour’s flagship event.

“It’s getting better every day,” he said after bagging six birdies as the sun shone for the first time this week on the Surrey venue. “There’s no doubt that everybody has made it so much easier for me. I don’t have words to explain what I feel towards the crowds here. They have been amazing, cheering me on every single tee and every single green. I can never pay them back.”

At the end of a day that had more twists and turns than the maze of roads that run through the exclusive Wentworth Estate, Spaniard Alejandro Canizares, who is still shaking off the remnants of viral meningitis, was nestled at the top of the leaderboard on nine-under, though lurking ominously, just a shot behind, is Lee Westwood. Beaten in a play-off by Luke Donald two years ago, the world No.12 stepped up his challenge with a five-under 67, one fewer than Canizares signed for.

“I still feel weak at times and it can be difficult to keep my concentration, but I’m doing so well that maybe I should feel like this more often,” said the 30-year-old leader after finishing with a brace of birdies to move ahead of Westwood, with Marc Warren (70) a further shot back in joint-third alongside Italian Matteo Manassero (69).

Having let winning positions slip in both the Scottish Open and Spanish Open in the last ten months, Warren, pictured below, admitted he wouldn’t be lacking motivation for the final circuit on the famed West Course. “It’s a good position to be in and if I can have a good front nine tomorrow, I should be in with a shout,” said the 32-year-old Scot. “Hopefully it will be third-time lucky. To win here, in the biggest event on the European Tour, would be special and also prove a lot of people wrong.”

Westwood, whose round was sparked by an eagle-3 at the fourth, has finished runner-up here twice, having also been the bridesmaid to Colin Montgomerie 13 years ago. “But this place doesn’t owe me,” he insisted. “Monty ran away with it in 2000 and, when Luke won, I didn’t do the right things on the last three holes.”

Enjoying the home backing – “they must have missed me now that I live in Florida,” he joked – Westwood’s much-maligned short game is even being praised now by one of his fiercest critics these days. “Even Johnny Miller last week said something about my short game – I nearly fell over,” he said. “When people like that say something nice and recognise that you put in some hard work and it’s paid off, it’s always a confidence-booster.”

As is the sort of finishing touch put to his round – a six-under-par 66 that equalled the best effort of the week – by Richie Ramsay. “It was Seve-like,” declared the Aberdonian after carving his tee shot into the trees, where he was forced to take a penalty, yet still managing to salvage par by hitting a majestic fourth shot from behind more timber and over water to three feet.

It helped him leap from joint-56th at the start into a tie for 14th on four-under, one behind overnight leader Francesco Molinari after the Italian’s challenge was unhinged by a triple-bogey 7 at the eighth. Ramsay wasn’t the only Scottish early bird to catch a worm.

After just squeezing into the final two rounds at 9pm on Friday night, Banchory’s Greig Hutcheon was back on the first tee ten hours later to get the third day under way. Playing on his own, the 40-year-old wasn’t affected by the solitude. A five-under 67 – the best effort by a PGA professional in the event since DJ Russell’s closing 66 in 2002 – hoisted him from joint-last into a share of 21st on three-under.

An eagle-3 at the 12th, coupled with three birdies in the last four holes, brought Hutcheon home in 32. Just as important was an adventurous par at the 13th, where he took a “huge divot” to send his drive into the heather, hacked an 8-iron up the fairway then holed a 25-footer. “Walking up the fairway my caddie, Rory, says, ‘well Hutch you’ve got all the shots’ and that took the edge off the situation,” said last year’s Tartan Tour No.1.

Greenock’s Chris Doak, a previous holder of that title, outscored his playing partner, Jose-Maria Olazabal, by six shots with a 72 after last year’s Ryder Cup captain ran up a 9 at the last.

“Jose-Maria’s a legend and I was just so pleased when I saw the draw,” admitted bunnet wearer Doak, whose level-par effort was matched by Montgomerie.