The old axiom of horses for courses was never more in evidence than at The K Club’s Smurfit Course as contender after contender, swathed in full sets of waterproofs, trudged wearily off the 18th green in the third round of the Smurfit Kappa European Open. Seemingly oblivious to all of this was Spaniard José Maria Lara, who revived happy memories of the same punishing layout in 2004.
Lara eschewed the conventional theory that Spaniards only perform with the sun on their back, holding his game together superbly in the biting wind and incessant rain to shoot a five under par 67 for a total of 205 and a one stroke lead over England’s Anthony Wall going into the final round.
Two years ago, the 29 year old from Valencia, earned a place in the final grouping on Sunday alongside eventual winner Retief Goosen of South Africa, eventually tieing for fifth with a round of 73. This time around, Lara finds himself not one behind but one in front – and in a strong position to improve on three second places finishes on The European Tour by collecting his first title.
On a day which began with a pleasant watery sun breaking through the clouds and ended with a reminder of winter, Lara handled the freezing rain with great aplomb. Seven birdies and two bogeys stood testament to his precise iron play as both Wall and Bradley Dredge of Wales surrendered the lead at various stages.
Dredge, joint leader at halfway alongside his fellow WGC-World Cup winner, Stephen Dodd, was 12 under at one point and four shots clear, but spilled five strokes over the last six holes to finish on six under par. Wall, who birdied the 14th and 15th to overhaul Dredge, promptly bogeyed the 16th and 17th to finish with a 70 for eight under par.
Ireland’s Darren Clarke was another who threatened to hit the front in his bid for a second Smurfit Kappa European Open title, but a mixed bag of birdies, bogeys and one double bogey over the back nine in the worst of the conditions say him finish tied third with England’s Jamie Spence and Dodd on seven under par after a 72.
Lara found it mildly amusing to find himself tagged as a Smurfit Course expert. He said: “It’s pretty much the same situation as 2004 except that I am two years older! I feel comfortable here, you know, even in this weather. I like the course. I like the greens and I am now going to play my own game and see how things go.
“There are many players within a few shots of my, so anyone can win. The important thing is that I am one of them. Two years ago I was very confident that I could win but Retief was also confident, having just won the US Open. I can’t I am happy because I don’t have any wins yet, but all that could change tomorrow.”
Of all the players jostling for the title, no-one can match the track record of Clarke, who felt he should have been five or six shots better, but expressed satisfaction with a level par 72 in the circumstances.
“I hit some great shots and some terrible ones but overall 72 is not a bad score. I left quite a few out there but I ground it out. My good shots are very good but unfortunately I’m not tournament sharp. At the moment I just have to take what I’m given.”
Wall, who finished fifth in the Irish Open just 25 minutes away from The K Club at Carton House in May, has another opportunity to win his second European Tour title and after a 70 he said: “For the middle of July it was pretty wet and cold and I think the cold got to me over the last few holes.”
Dredge, who looked in complete command through five holes before suffering a dip in form over the back nine, said sadly: “I think the ‘wet factor’ set in. It was pretty windy and wet and the ball seemed to squirt of my driver a bit. I hit some awful ones on the back nine.”
There was a remarkable revival for one Irish Ryder Cup hopeful in Paul McGinley, who headed for Dublin Airport on Friday night, convinced he had missed the cut at two over par.
McGinley, the match winner at The De Vere Belfry in 2002, actually holed a lob wedge at his 16th hole to get to two over par and was awaiting his delayed flight for London when he was informed that he might just make the cut.
When it was confirmed, Aer Lingus staff managed to locate his golf clubs from the aircraft hold and McGinley returned to The K Club for an early start in tied 64th place. By noon on Saturday, McGinley had moved up through the field with a round of 67 – equalled by Lara later in the day – and by nightfall he was in a share of 18th place.
“I can’t figure this game out” sighed McGinley. “What did I do differently today? Nothing. The big thing is that the quality of my golf today went up to what I’m capable of doing. Golf is about peaks and troughs and I kept saying I would come back to form.”
Clark chipped in: “The was Paul played today was fantastic. He’s been working very hard on his game and it has been a frustrating time for him. Hopefully he is aware that he’s had a break and it’s fantastic he’s made the most of it.”
|T2||LARA, José Manuel||ESP||18||-7|
|T4||SINGH, Jeev Milkha||IND||18||-6|