Scandinavia held sway over the rest of the field on a day of glorious shot making and a glut of birdies and eagles in the third round of the Murphy’s Irish Open at Fota Island in Cork which ended with no fewer than 27 players within four strokes of the lead.
At the conclusion of a scintillating day which saw the course record of 63 equalled not one, not twice but three times and 64 recorded on three separate occasions, the lead was held by two Danes, Thomas Björn and Søren Hansen, with a Swede, Niclas Fasth, muscling in on the action alongside the Danish duo who missed out in a play-off for the World Golf Championships-EMC2 World Cup.
Björn and Fasth, playing together after starting the day tied for 28th, matched each other every step of the way as they equalled the record score set by Colin Montgomerie and Fasth himself 12 months ago.
Earlier, England’s Richard Bland had moved from tied 47th to a share of second by shooting the first of the day’s 63s, then soon afterwards it was the turn of Hansen to stake a claim to a first European Tour title and follow in the footsteps of his close friend, namesake and countryman, Anders Hansen, who won the Volvo PGA Championship recently.
Björn, Fasth and Hansen lead the way on 11 under par, 202, just a single stroke ahead of a quartet of players, Bland, Germany's Alex Cejka, South Africa’s Darren Fichardt and Eduardo Romero of Argentina.
Between them, the three leaders claimed a total of 21 birdies and three eagles, as the halfway pace-setters stumbled in the tougher afternoon conditions, so allowing any number of players back into the tournament which Montgomerie won from start to finish last year.
Halfway leader Peter O'Malley shot a 73 to slip four shots off the pace while Montgomerie, who began one behind the leader, went round in 74.
It was a remarkable day all round at Fota Island, where a massive 27,900 crowd thronged the course and were treated to a feast of low scoring. New professional, Graeme McDowell from Northern Ireland, set the ball rolling, teeing off first and shooting 65 in his second event to climb from joint last to tied 17th.
Right behind Darren Clarke attempted to replicate his 2001 performance, in which he birdied the last to make the halfway cut then fired rounds of 65 and 64 to claim a share of second place. Once again the Irishman birdied the 36th hole to survive the axe and blazed his way round in 65 to stoke up his title charge.
However the real fireworks were ignited by Björn and Fasth, who could hardly have failed to impress Ryder Cup Captain, Sam Torrance, who played with a sense of camaraderie more reminiscent of partners than opponents.
Björn smiled: “If we played like that it would take a lot to stand up to us. That’s for Sam to decide whether we play together but we get on well. Niclas is a wonderful player whohas come a long way in the last year. He played wonderful golf today.”
The Dane insisted he has been “just one good round” away from getting back on track after some indifferent results by his own high standards. He said: “I’ve been through a rough time and not living up to the expectations I have of myself. I just need to stick my head down more and enjoy being in this position again.”
Fasth, who finished runner-up in the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes last year, commented: “Obviously we were feeding off each other. There were very, very few mistakes out there. I have good memories from here. There is a nice feel about the place and the crowd have been wonderful to me and given me great support.”
Hansen, second in The Compass Group English Open earlier this month, almost holed out twice in his round of 64, rolling two feet past at the seventh and finishing three inches behind the hole after lipping out at the 11th.
The Dane admitted he has now “started to think” about winning a tournament and emulating Björn and the other Hansen. He said: “Coming so close in the World Cup helped my confidence and I also have a good team behind me now. My caddie, Tim, has been with me for a while and I am working with Pete Cowen. You need the best support you can get. It’s a team effort.”
Bland, a close friend of former Southampton midfielder, Matt le Tissier – who will caddie for him in The Barclays Scottish Open at Loch Lomond – had eight birdies and no dropped shots in the day’s first 63.
The former Challenge Tour graduate now aims to secure his card for 2003 and went a long way towards giving himself a big chance while Fichardt also bagged eight birdies but made a solitary bogey.
Young Englishman Nick Dougherty, one of five first round leaders, shot the third 64 of a superb Saturday with nine birdies on his card.