Spain's Sergio Garcia made a strong bid for his first Omega European Masters title when he forged three shots clear of the last man to finish in the Swiss twilight, Welshman Garry Houston, at the halfway stage at Crans-sur-Sierre.
Garcia, World Number Six and favourite to land the spoils at the Alpine course where he has a holiday home, repeated his feat of last year exactly by shooting a six under par 65 to follow an opening 66 for an 11 under par total of 131.
The three-time Ryder Cup player will be paired in the final group in the third round with Houston, who admits his own World Ranking is “about 300 or 400 places” below Garcia.
Houston, currently 126th on The European Tour Order of Merit, is relishing the prospect of playing with a player of Garcia’s calibre. He admitted: “I’ve knocked on the door of a final grouping before but I don’t think I’ve been in this position before. Last group with Mr Garcia? He can play a bit and it should be fun.”
After a second round of 69 to add to his opening 65, Houston sank his final putt seven hours after Garcia had posted his second round. He lies one shot in front of Frenchman Jean Van de Velde withi four players tied on 136, six under par.
Houston added: “It’s a big day tomorrow playing with Sergio but it’s the old cliché of taking one hole at a time and not worrying about anything else. I don’t known him to speak to but I am looking forward to the big galleries and the TV cameras. Tomorrow is the kind of day you practise for.”
Twelve months ago, Garcia also opened with rounds of 66-65 then shot a 68 and a final round of 72 to drop down to a share of third place behind the winner, his friend and house guest this week, Luke Donald of England, but the 25 year old Spanish player is determined not to let matters slip this time.
He drove the green on two of the par fours, making an eagle from seven feet on the fifth and just coming up short for another on the seventh, both times with 330 yard drives.
"I've been trying for three years to get an eagle chance on the fifth and I finally did it," said Garcia. "For the last couple of years I've bounced the ball on the green but it's rolled in the bunker.
"This time I got the right line and left myself a seven footer up the hill and you can't ask for better. I didn't realise I'd started the same last year, but the course is playing a lot tougher this year, so I've played a lot better."
Despite his large lead, Garcia was again disappointed with his putting, even though he is insistent he is improving in that department. He is relishing the time when he can surge up from the lower reaches of the putting statistics.
"I've been getting better and better over the last four or five months. If I'm 200th in the putts per round and can still manage to be in the top ten on the Money List and contending in Majors and winning tournament it gives me a lot of good thoughts about the rest of my game. If I start making some putts it will be a lot of fun."
The sight of Van de Velde’s name close to the top of the leaderboard thrilled the local crowds, who have adopted the Frenchman who lived in Switzerland for ten years. It was 12 months ago in Crans that he broke down with a recurrence of a bad knee injury and didn’t play for another five months.
After a smooth second round of 65, Van de Velde admitted: “What a difference a year makes. I tried to come back here because of what happened last year and I thought it would be a great challenge for my leg and a great challenge for myself. It’s a place I’ve always loved. I just happy to be back out there playing golf again.”