European stars still hoping to end US major dominance
There were some outstanding rounds by the cream of European golf at Carnoustie on Saturday. Unfortunately, for those of us hoping the Old World will strike a major blow this side of of the Ryder Cup, none of them came from those European stars who were anywhere near the top of the leaderboard at the halfway point.
On a day when almost half of the field broke 70 – Carnoustie having been neutered by the combination of fast-running fairways, recently watered greens and little in the way of wind – it was a good day to be out early.
Teeing off in the last hour were Thorbjorn Olesen, Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood, surrounded by Americans and the occasional South African.
There is more pressure having to wait until late afternoon – the leaders didn’t start until 4pm – when the course is echoing with roars as the halfway-point stragglers cover the scoreboards in birdies and eagles.
By the time they took to the course, Justin Rose had already put the finishing touches to his low-round-of-the-day, and indeed the championship, of 64.
And this after it took a birdie on the 18th on Friday evening to make the cut. The first 35 holes had yielded a paltry two birdies. With a round to go, he now has 10 to his name. Remarkably, he has played the 18th in a total of nine strokes so far. It took the World No. 1, Dustin Johnson, 13 blows just to finish it twice.
Just behind him, for much of the day Chris Wood was going along at an ever greater lick. Seven under par through 13 holes, late stutters meant he needed to hole an incredible up and down at the 18th green to sign for a 66.
Next up was Francesco Molinari, in the form of his life. His 65 was blemish-free on the scorecard but the rueful look on his face after missing meekly from six feet for a closing birdie simultaneously indicated that his putting remains a relative point of weakness, and also that he is genuinely thinking in terms of winning this tournament.
Alex Noren also had a good day, making seven birdies. None though, arguably, were as valuable as the bogey he salvaged at the 18th after finding water once and very nearly twice.
A mention here for Danny Willett whose heartening return to form continued with a third successive steady round, albeit his 70 seemed unspectacular on the day.
That left our three European stars – a Dane, a Northern Irishman and an Englishman.
Olesen was over par for much of the day until a late flourish of an eagle at the 14th and a birdie on the very next hole at least achieved respectability. But nothing more.
McIlroy, as it seems is so often the case just now, was unconvincing in the early stages – a clumsy putt from off the green at the 1st, a poorly judged wedge at the 2nd, a wild drive off the 3rd and, finally, a dropped shot that had been coming at the 4th.
And, true to form, he then rallied, with back-to-back birdies at the 6th and 7th.
Finally, he began to find his form with the driver, always a barometer for the 2014 Open champion’s form and mood. One blow at the 14th sent his ball over 400 yards. And yet still there were three frustrating bogeys to pull him back every time he got within view of the leaders. He begins the final day with four shots to make up.
Relatively speaking, Fleetwood was the biggest disappointment of the day. Which only goes to show how far he has come. Now regarded as one of our genuine European stars, we expect a lot.
His ball-striking on Friday was sublime but here vulnerabilities unexpectedly emerged. Perhaps we should have paid more attention when he spoke of being pleasantly surprised by the quality of his golf in the second round. Ugly sixes at the 6th and 12th pockmarked his card and the rest of his day was erratic, though not without its highlights.
One such was the fairway wood into a freshening evening breeze at the 17th. It even impressed his caddie, though the Sky broadcast team might not have appreciated his exact choice of Anglo-Saxon as he volubly expressed his compliments.
Meanwhile, Jordan Spieth, and just about the rest of the US Ryder Cup team for that matter, was doing his thing.
The defending champion is joined by the likes of Kevin Kisner, Xander Schauffele, Kevin Chappell, Zach Johnson, Tiger Woods, Webb Simpson, Matt Kuchar, Austin Cook, Charley Hoffman and Tony Finau. All are inside the top 20.
In the blue corner, heading into the last day, each of Molinari. McIlroy, Noren, Fleetwood and Rose can still dream of lifting the Claret Jug at Carnoustie.
But the odds are that an American will claim that great golfing nation’s sixth successive major – and it will just make the task for our European stars at Le Golf National in September that touch more intimidating.