DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—The old European order has been temporarily restored. Thirty-eight-year-old Lee Westwood bashed his way to the top of the leaderboard in the Dubai Desert Classic overtaking overnight joint leader, 22-year-old Rory McIlroy. Victory for the Englishman on Sunday will see him back at World No. 2, putting the young Ulsterman firmly in his place as World No. 3. The fight to be European golf’s Alpha male will resume in the jungle, okay, desert, on Sunday.
Westwood began the day three shots behind McIlroy. He headed for dinner two shots ahead after a five-under-par 67. He needed a fast start and got one, with birdies at three of the first four holes. But Westwood gave two shots back with his only two poor drives of the day at the sixth and eighth. He joined Thomas Bjorn at the top of the leaderboard for the first time with a birdie at the 12th, and he took sole possession of the lead with another birdie at the 13th. Bjorn slipped away with three bogeys in the last four holes, while Westwood remained the established star with his name writ large on leaderboards around the Emirates Golf Club. He plans to keep it there.
“I’m not trying to bully anybody,” Westwood said before reeling off a resume that he believes gives him the right to feel he is the top name in contention. “I know how to play with the lead, I won four times last year. When I get a chance, I’m pretty good at finishing off. I’ve won 38 times. That’s not somebody that’s not good with a lead. It’s a habit. You get used to knowing what to do. When to press, when not to press, when to be patient.”
How’s that for a confident statement?
But Westwood knows it is a tightly packed leaderboard with McIlroy and Kaymer just two behind and 2003 British Open champion Ben Curtis a further shot back at 12 under par. Those three majors champions will all play together in the final round and should prove the major threat to Westwood’s thrust for the finish line.
Westwood’s grand entrance onto the leaderboard came with that birdie at the par-5 13th, which was set up by an enormous drive of more than 300 yards. He unleashed his big dog and took a huge bite out of the dogleg. He then marched after his ball with his chest puffed out like a sergeant major on a mission.
Playing partner Marcel Siem traipsed after him like a downtrodden private on parade. The German (world ranking: 223rd, World Cup winner with Bernhard Langer in 2006) looks like an unlikely sportsman, leaning as he does on a belly putter, and wearing fluorescent green jeans borrowed from a refuse collector, and seemingly sporting a Caroline Wozniacki wig. His ponytail stuck out of a scruffy train conductor’s cap that was frayed at the edges. Somebody get him a decent hat deal.
There was nothing frayed at the edges about Siem’s game, though. A bogey-free round of four under par sees him just one shot behind Westwood along with Scotland’s Stephen Gallacher and Spain’s Rafael Cabrera-Bello.
McIlroy had a day to forget, finding the water at the seventh and hitting a spectator with an errant drive of 294 yards at the 16th. He said he felt lucky that he got out of jail to be just two shots off the lead after an even-par 72.
“I was a little ragged. Thought I’d be four or five back the way I was playing,” he said. “Only two back isn’t much. I was even par on Saturday in Hong Kong and shot 65 on Sunday to win. So at least I’ve got my bad round out of the way. It will be nice to get off to a fast start to put some pressure on the guys in front.”
The wind is forecast to be blustery Sunday, which was good news to McIlroy’s sunburned ears.
“The windier the better,” he said. “It means the guys probably won’t get away from me.”
And with that he was off to the driving range to give himself a darned good tweaking, and get ready for Sunday. It will be a final-round leaderboard that tournament sponsors and spectators dream of.
“You’ve got the number two, three and four in the world here this week and we are all on the leaderboard,” Westwood said relishing the tough battle ahead. Well, sort of. “I’d like to be 10 in front,” he said with a laugh.
For those wanting to root for an underdog, look no further than Joel Sjoholm, who is at 13 under par just two shots adrift of Westwood’s lead. The 26-year-old was born in Santiago, Chile, but was adopted at three months old by a Swedish family. Sjoholm is built like Babe Ruth and dresses like him, too, in plus fours. He was asked recently to name his partners for a fantasy fourball. Nicklaus, Palmer and Hogan? Nope. He chose three porn stars.