x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Dubai Desert Classic: Young gun is no longer star-struck

England's 22-year-old Tommy Fleetwood has sunk 11 birdies and sits in a three-way tie for second while Richard Sterne is still atop the Dubai Desert Classic leaderboard, writes John McAuley.

Richard Sterne from South Africa plays a ball on the 12th hole during the second round of the Dubai Desert Classic on Friday. Sterne holds a slim one-shot lead on the field. Kamran Jebreili / AP Photo
Richard Sterne from South Africa plays a ball on the 12th hole during the second round of the Dubai Desert Classic on Friday. Sterne holds a slim one-shot lead on the field. Kamran Jebreili / AP Photo

DUBAI // Tommy Fleetwood attributes his current success to a new-found sense of belonging.

The young Englishman, previously a classy amateur, struggled last year in his rookie season on the European Tour, although tied-sixth at November's South African Open suggested he was finally feeling comfortable mixing it with the big boys.

On Friday at Emirates Golf Club, he confirmed it with a second successive round of flawless golf, which thrust him to the summit until the last swish of Richard Sterne's putter.

"I'm still very young but last year I felt very young," said Fleetwood, 22 last month. "Sat in a player's lounge with people you've watched on TV all the time and you don't really know how they're going to be with you; whether to speak or not to speak."

This week his game is doing the talking. Fleetwood's first round sparkled with seven birdies, and he added four for a 68 to share second with Thorbjorn Olesen and Stephen Gallacher.

At 11-under and enjoying what he agrees is the best moment of his pro career, Fleetwood found time for a little reminiscing. Granted, considering his age it cannot have been too long ago. It turned out to be not too far from his present location, either.

"When I saw Tiger Woods in Abu Dhabi," said Fleetwood when asked to recall his 2012 highlights. "Seeing him on the putting green putting to the same hole was quite something.

"He's my all-time hero. I have two pictures in my bedroom: one's of him and the other's Muhammad Ali."

Fleetwood will be on his guard this weekend, especially after a season of grind taught the 2011 Challenge Tour's champion that the sport can always land a knockout blow.

"I learned how to struggle," he said. "I'd never lost form properly my whole life, and then you've a few months where you can't break par no matter what you do.

"It opened my eyes a little bit."

Sights are now trained firmly on the Coffee Pot trophy, although he does not lack for fellow aspirants.

Sterne begins Saturday's third round in the driving seat, despite struggling to match Thursday's 62 as the wind finally swirled around the Majlis. The South African improved by only two shots.

"I'm pretty happy with the performance," he said. "Things didn't go that easy, but I held it together and made a couple of good shots and good putts at the right time."

His last on 18 was a case in point. Having found the edge of the green with his second to the par-5, Sterne chipped to four feet and rolled in the putt for the outright lead at 12-under.

However, plenty of work remains to be done.

"The guys are bunched up and there's some good players there," he said. "Anyone five or six shots back still has a good chance of winning."

That will sit well with a menacing chasing pack. Those within six birdies of Sterne include Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Paul Casey, Matteo Manassero and Henrik Stenson.

Garcia proved the best of that bunch, despite a troublesome shoulder that twice required on-course physiotherapy. A second-round 67, moving him two off the top, offered hope for his considerable contingent of fans here.

Olesen, though, could soon rival him in the popularity stakes. The Dane, 23, has been impressive during the three-week Desert Swing. He was tied-second two weeks ago in Abu Dhabi and impressive through two rounds in Qatar.

His peers are predicting big things for him.

"That's a great compliment," Olesen said after carding a 66, the joint-lowest round of the day. "I'm very pleased they're saying such nice things about me."

Olesen looks primed to capture his second European Tour victory, and the omens for this weekend are good: yesterday's 3-under cut line matched the lowest in Desert Classic history, set in 2001 and 2007. The winners back then? Thomas Bjorn and Stenson, two fellow Scandinavians.

A desert-loving Scot may have something to say about that. Gallacher was second last year and a 70 keeps him running alongside Olesen.

"You just want to be in the hunt for Sunday," he said. "Have a good one tomorrow and then what happens come Sunday afternoon."

Dubai Desert Classic leaderboard

After Friday's second round

Player Score Par

R Sterne 70 -12

S Gallacher 70 -11

T Olesen 66 -11

T Fleetwood 68 -11

C Doak 69 -10

M Kieffer 68 -10

A Harto 67 -10

R Wattel 67 -9

JM Singh 67 -9

S Garcia 67 -9

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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