The fact that any lead in golf is ephemeral was brought sharply into focus once again. Without doing much wrong, but thanks to a brilliant charge by England’s David Horsey, that advantage of Olesen’s was frittered down to just one shot at the halfway stage on a topsy-turvy day at the Regnum Carya course.
Then, on the back nine, several things happened. First Olesen woke up and made three birdies in four holes of his favourite stretch – between the par-5 12th and the par-5 15th. And as quickly as he caught fire, he started spraying his shots in wild fashion over the last four holes, the 15th included.
Somehow, the Dane battled hard and his wayward drives resulted in only one bogey – on the 17th hole. As the 26-year-old struggled, it was the turn of Chinese Haotong Li to become red-hot. Four birdies from the 14th to the 17th hole put immense pressure on Olesen, but the champion managed to scrape through without further damage.
In the end, he shot a two-under par 69 to finish on 20-under, while Li and Horsey were tied for second place at 17-under par 267.
Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger (69) was two shots adrift at 269, while South Africa’s George Coetzee
“I knew on this golf course you could go out and shoot a really low score if you get it going. Some of the guys did that on the front nine, and yeah, it got really close, put a lot of pressure on me,” said Olesen.
“It was difficult, but I felt like yesterday, I was very good in being patient. Mentally, I was stronger in the middle of the round. I had a bad three-putt there on the ninth which was a bad timing. In the middle of the back nine, I made those few birdies, that was very important, especially the one on 12 was definitely a momentum changer.”
The fourth European Tour win of his career resulted in Olesen moving up to ninth in the Race to Dubai and he is expected to move to No65 in the world today from 92nd.
Horsey was disappointed not to reach the number he had in his mind, but delighted with the way he scored throughout the week.
“I sort of thought, if I could get to 20-under, that would be a reasonable effort and put a little bit of pressure. I wanted to put a little pressure early doors and thankfully was able to do that. Just ran out of a bit of steam there on the back nine,” said the four-time European Tour champion. “I am pleased with how I played. Probably the best I’ve played all week, so yeah, a little disappointed I couldn’t keep it going on the back nine.”
Masters champion Danny Willett walked off with a 75 for a tied 68th. He said he was considering withdrawing from next week’s NedBank Challenge as he wasn’t enjoying his golf, but changed his mind later and will head to Sun City.
Willett, who is second in the Race to Dubai behind Henrik Stenson, said: “It just comes and goes, a couple of good days and a couple of bad days. To be honest I don’t really want to be out there playing golf.
“It could not have happened at a worse time. Things are just not going my way, nothing feels that great.”
The Americans, sick and tired of losing the Ryder Cup the last few years, made several changes to the way they approached the tournament and reaped the rewards by winning this year.
Now, it looks like it is the Europeans’ turn to ring in the changes.
The absence of Paul Casey at Hazeltine for the Europeans stood out like a sore thumb.
Going into the Ryder Cup week, the Englishman was ranked 13th in the world – only Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Danny Willett, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia – were ranked above him – and was in terrific form having finished second, second and fourth in the three FedEx Cup Playoff events before that.
Oh… and there is also the fact that Casey has proven Ryder Cup and match play pedigree.
And yet, he did not have any chance of making it to the team.
The reason – he chose not to become a member of the European Tour. Having had a baby the year before, the US-based Casey wanted to focus on the PGA Tour and play only in the States.
There was another European player who should have been in the team, but made a similar mistake as Casey. Scotland’s Russell Knox did take up his European Tour membership and made a massive run for the automatic spots, but because his WGC-HSBC Champions win last year came when he wasn’t the member of the European Tour, his Shanghai effort did not count and he fell short by one place.
Knox had won six weeks before the Ryder Cup – at the Travelers Championship on the PGA Tour.
During the Ryder Cup week, he was the seventh best European player in the world, ranked 19th.
There is now a distinct possibility that the European Tour qualification process will undergo some modification. This week, both McIlroy and Lee Westwood have opined that they’d rather have the 12 best ‘Europeans’ playing the Ryder Cup rather than the 12 best ‘European Tour’ players.
I personally think it is ‘punishment’ enough for players like Casey that they are unable to take part in the cash-rich Final Series events. That privilege should go to members who have served the Tour throughout the year.
But the Ryder Cup is a different matter. It should allow for the 12 best players in either continent to compete.
There is no doubt that Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama is the hottest player in the world right now.
The 23-year-old won the Japan Open, came second in PGA Tour’s CIMB Classic and won the WGCHSBC Champions in Shanghai, all in the last three weeks.
That stunning streak has seen Matsuyama jump to No6 in the world rankings – the second best ranking ever achieved by a Japanese golfer (Masashi Ozaki in 1997, reached world No5). Between 1994 and 1997, Masashi, popularly known as ‘Jumbo’ Ozaki and widely regarded as the greatest-ever Japanese golfer, played 92 tournaments, out of which he won 25 and finished runner-up 12 times.
It is considered one of the dominating runs in golf.
And yet, Jumbo played only 20 of those events outside Japan – 15 majors and three Players Championships.
He missed cuts in most of them and his best finish was tied 25th in the 1994 US Open.
Japan has produced several outstanding golfers in the past – Isao Aoki and Shingo Katayama are just two examples – but they have often been shackled by the fact that they tend to stay and play at home. Food and language are two big barriers that have prevented them from venturing out and showcasing their immense skills to the world.
Katayama was really the first Japanese player to embrace the PGA Tour, and Matsuyama, and his good friend Ryo Ishikawa, are now the young brigade who have realised they need to get out of their comfort zones.
A lot is expected from Matsuyama, and I won’t be surprised if he goes on to become the first Japanese player to win a major championship.
Willett, the Omega Dubai Desert Classic champion this year, had led the Race to Dubai since winning the Masters in April, before Open champion Henrik Stenson overtook him with his tied second place finish in the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai on Sunday.
Willett was hampered by what he called his “worst event on Tour” as he finished 75th in the 78-man field with a 14-over par score. Stenson banked a cheque of $787,000, which translated to a lead of 261,387 points on the top of Race to Dubai.
With two of his nearest rivals not competing in Turkey – Stenson never entered the tournament and is resting before NedBank Challenge and DP World Tour Championship, while No3 Rory McIlroy pulled out in the last minute – Willett now has a chance to reclaim the lead.
“This is a pretty big week. It gives me a chance to either close that gap or hopefully leapfrog Henrik again and make it really interesting coming down to the last two events,” said Willett.
“We’ve been leading it for a long, long time and unfortunately last week I had probably my worst event on Tour. It was one of those things where anything that could go wrong, did go wrong and I didn’t play great.
“It’s unfortunate that Henrik jumped above us but we were never going to win the Race to Dubai on the amount we were on. We always had to bump it forward and that’s still the aim. Hopefully the golf game gets a little better and we just keep working forward.”
Willett is clearly striving to reach the level of form which won him the Masters, but he revealed he had to make some changes in his swing, mainly to ensure that it eased the effect on his bad back.
The world No10 said: “April was obviously a pretty magical month, but you still try and push your game forward. At times, that leads to taking a few steps backwards and unfortunately it’s happened at a really bad time of the year.
“But the focus isn’t on the short-term goal. It’s a long-term goal and you’ve got to start making changes eventually and doing something different if you want to get better.
“We’re working incredibly hard in the gym, off the golf course, doing everything right and practising hard. But it’s just not quite going the way that I would have envisioned it going these last couple of months.
“It’s just tough when you’re trying to play golf and make swing changes at the same time. You always revert back to type and especially when you get under pressure.”
Willett has been paired with defending champion Victor Dubuisson and Andy Sullivan at 12:50 UAE time.