Francesco Molinari and Alex Noren share a one shot lead going into what promises to be a spectacular weekend in the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart Golf Links.
Birdies and eagles were flying in all across this magnificent links on another perfect day for scoring on the banks of the Moray Firth – each one taking the Birdie Pledge charity donation ever higher – but in the end it was Molinari, the overnight leader, and Noren at the head of a congested leaderboard on 12 under par.
Molinari, who smashed the course record on the opening day, even had a triple bogey seven on the 464 yard seventh before battling back to a two under par 70, but that slip was enough to allow Swede Noren to join him out in front after a second successive 66 the day after his girlfriend Emelie won an event in Norway on his 30th birthday.
“It feels great,” said Noren, a three-time European Tour winner. “I really enjoyed it today again. I made a lot of birdies out there, and an eagle which helps a lot.
“My last nine holes I played really well, drove the ball well and it felt a lot better coming in with the 66 today than the 66 yesterday.”
Big things were expected of Noren when he won in Wales and in his home country last season, but he has not had a top-five finish since October and is trailing way behind in the Ryder Cup race.
"I think I'm not going to be on top at the end of the day," he said at lunchtime. But he was wrong.
Molinari had been on fire since the final round of the Alstom Open de France at Le Golf National, and finishing that tournament with a back nine of 29 before starting this week with a 30 – a collective 18 consecutive holes of 59 – but the magic had to come to an end at some point.
“It is very tough, and especially after what I did Sunday in Paris,” he said. “Obviously the last two rounds before today everything went my way and I kind of knew it was not going to last forever.
“I did well though. I made a big mistake on the seventh but I fought hard to get some shots back, and I'm still up there with the leaders. So it's going to be hopefully a good weekend.”
Fellow Italian Matteo Manassero, twice a winner on the European Tour already and still a teenager, is in the hunt for another victory - and a place in The Open Championship - after a 64 matched the low round of the day.
Manassero's scintillating seven birdies in the last nine holes brought him only one off the lead alongside Argentina’s Ricardo Gonzalez.
The European Tour's youngest-ever champion could qualify for Royal Lytham & St Annes next week with a top five finish, but his sights are on emulating what German Marcel Siem did at the Alstom Open de France last Sunday by winning to earn his spot.
"The Open is on my mind and this is my last chance," said the 19 year old from Verona, who stands 11 under par at halfway.
Manassero finished a brilliant 13th at Turnberry three years ago and added: "I would really love to be in The Open. I like links golf and it has a special atmosphere."
The two Italians were at the same Italian restaurant on Thursday night and followed that with a trip to McDonalds for ice creams. Now they are rivals for a first prize of €518,045 and a title won by Molinari's brother Edoardo two years ago.
Argentina's big-hitting Gonzalez is joint third with Manassero after also shooting 64 thanks to a hot putter – he only needed 27 putts all day.
“It was great. It’s been a long time since I shot a 64, and especially in a tournament. When I'm feeling very good, it's always my putter. That's the important thing.”
India’s SSP Chowrasia is a further shot back after a 67 while World Number One and defending champion Luke Donald's 68 means he is in the ten-strong group at nine under par who only three shots to make up and Phil Mickelson's 64 brought him just five back.
With 2009 winner Martin Kaymer among those alongside Donald and Padraig Harrington six under, the final 36 holes has all sorts of possibilities still.
Ernie Els survived with nothing to spare at four under - only two off the lowest-ever cut on The European Tour.
There was also a second hole-in-one at the 168-yard 11th for the second day running. England's Andrew Johnston won 168 bottles of Laurant Perrier champagne for being the first and Scot Peter Whiteford had to settle for one magnum.
"I'll have a word - maybe he can give me a couple," said Whiteford, who shot 65 to move to eight under.
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