Friday, 16 March 2001
Niclas Fasth seems to have quite a liking for the spectacular Santo da Serra course in Madeira. Twelve months after leading from start to finish to claim his maiden European Tour title, the Swede is again at the top of the leaderboard in the Madeira Island Open after a flawless 63, nine under par, took him two clear of England’s John Bickerton on 12 under par at the halfway stage.

Fasth fired nine birdies in total without a hint of a dropped shot as he surged through the field. A birdie on the third was followed by a hat-trick from the sixth as he reached the turn in 32. Even when he appeared to be in trouble on the tenth when confronted by a blind second shot, he still managed to fire a nine iron over 130 yards to within six feet of the hole to set up another birdie. More putts rolled in on the next two holes from short distances. His eighth birdie of the round duly arrived on the 14th when he holed a tricky 20 footer before he capped an outstanding round with a simple birdie two on the 17th, his eight iron tee shot coming to rest a mere three feet from the pin.

“I had a bit of a shaky start,” he said. “Missed from about three foot on the first and missed the green on the second. But from the third onwards I made very few mistakes and got away with it. Once or twice when I did make mistakes I still saved a par. I was rarely under pressure. Didn’t make many long putts as I was close all the time. Had a few tap ins and chip and one putts. I played good and always had a chance for birdie. You can make birdies on this course. Certainly not guaranteed to make nine but you can make some.”

Once again showing the same confidence that brought him victory last year, Fasth added: “Now I certainly feel I can win. I felt that yesterday. Halfway through the round yesterday I felt good and thought, I am into this now. I was really expecting to do well.

“Anyone eight, nine, ten under par is playing well. I’m sure a few will put up a good challenge. But I feel good about it and feel I will be up there on Sunday.”

With the wind that has buffeted the island for the past few weeks again staying away, Bickerton took full advantage of the benign conditions to fire a second successive 67 and remain well in the hunt for his maiden title. Bickerton was forced to withdraw from Qatar last week after suffering gastro-enteritis but surprised himself with his quick recovery and decided to make the trip to Madeira. After a round of five birdies without a dropped shot, he now lies two shots off the pace at the halfway stage.

“I didn’t really excel in anything today,” he said. “Just one of those rounds when you knocked a couple close, knocked a couple in. I said yesterday I would take 67 every day.”

Gary Emerson shot possibly the most adventurous 67 of the day to join the group of seven players on eight under par. His round included seven birdies, an eagle, two bogeys and a double bogey. “Not very steady,” he said afterwards. “Tomorrow I’ll try for the seven birdies and the eagle without the dropped shots.”

Jose Manuel Lara and Henrik Stenson, both Challenge Tour graduates from last season, are also on eight under par after rounds of 68 and 66 respectively. Lara has made a solid start to his rookie year and even found himself leading the Dubai Desert Classic after 17 holes with Tiger Woods breathing down his neck. “I was dreaming,” he said. “Then made a double bogey up the last when I hit a palm tree but it was good experience.”

They are joined by Massimo Florioli and Marcus Brier, who both shot second successive 68s, and two of the more experienced players on Tour – Des Smyth and Andrew Oldcorn.

Five times major champion Seve Ballesteros showed some of his old magic in conjuring up a round of 68 to move to five under par. It was his first cut of the year and lowest round since the first round of the 1999 Volvo Masters. It was also his first round in the 60s since the Open Championship last year. His round of six birdies and two bogeys was highlighted by a two on the short fourth where he almost holed his seven iron, pitching past the hole directly on line and spinning it back to within a couple of inches.

“I played well today but made a couple of bogeys on the 16th and 18th . The one on the 18th especially was unlucky. The ball spun back a long way. But bad luck and good luck makes it even. Happy I shot 68. It’s better than what has been happening lately.

“I putted very well. My short game was good. Still my long game is not where it supposed to be.”

The cut fell on level par with 80 players progressing to the third round.

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