Defending champion happy to have the spotlight on Race to Dubai leaders Fleetwood and Rose.
DP World Tour Championship: Fitzpatrick sneaks 'under the radar' to claim halfway lead
Even as defending champion, Matthew Fitzpatrick reckons he has been able to go a little unnoticed this week at the DP World Tour Championship.
The understated Englishman, seeking a second tournament title to seal a second European Tour victory in two months, knows full well that much of the spotlight at Jumeirah Golf Estates has centred on the developing battle for the Race to Dubai.
Sitting 12th in the standings coming into the season finale, he can leave the Order of Merit scrap primarily to compatriots Tommy Fleetwood, the leader, and Justin Rose, his closer challenger.
Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, can apparently go about his business without attracting too much attention. At least, until he fired himself to the top of the leaderboard at the halfway stage.
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"Plenty of focus has been on Tommy and Justin and that’s fine by me,” said Fitzpatrick on Friday, after shooting a second successive 67 to lead by one from fellow Englishman Tyrrell Hatton. “If I can sneak under the radar and win that’d be great.”
An eagle on 14 was hardly stealth. Responding to a dropped shot on 17 with a birdie on 18, in full glare of a packed gallery, was certainly not either. So Fitzpatrick moved to 10-under for the tournament, taking him one clear of Hatton and two ahead of a pack comprising Rose, American Julian Suri and Thailand's Kiradech Aphibarnrat. Overnight leader Patrick Reed trails them by one.
Memorably, last year Fitzpatrick pipped Hatton to the trophy right at the death, when the latter bogeyed the final hole and the former birdied it. Having displayed commendable courage then, Fitzpatrick feels he holds an advantage 12 months on.
“I think it will be,” he said. “I know what I’m capable of, what I’ve done around this place. So hopefully take that into the weekend and play even better golf than I have done the first two days. Obviously it’ll be tough, but if I do that I’ll have a good chance.
“I've got nothing to lose. I'm not trying to win the Race to Dubai unfortunately. Obviously it would be nice to defend, but you know the odds when you're coming into the tournament, there's great players at the top of the leaderboard already.
“The only thing I would say is that I did win last year, and that probably gives me a little bit more confidence than everyone else. Maybe apart from Rosey because he's won the last two starts. I'm just looking forward to the weekend and delighted that I could put myself in position.”
Hatton should have felt similarly pleased. Setting off early, he posted the clubhouse lead just after midday, carding a superb 63 to jump 39 places and leave everyone below him.
The only thing was, Hatton was on for a course-record 61 as he stood on the 18th tee, but ended up with a bogey. His approach to the par-5, when he was caught between clubs, found the greenside bunker and plugged, meaning he took two to escape. He then missed the putt for par and a score one better than Rose’s high mark in 2012.
It has become something of a bogey hole, really. It put pay to Hatton’s chances last year as he lost by one, and in the third round the previous year, he finished with a triple-bogey 8. No wonder his latest effort irked.
“Obviously if you said at the start of the day I would shoot 9-under, I would be over the moon,” Hatton said. “Pretty bitter pill to swallow on 18. That hole seems to hate me. Hopefully one day I'll actually play it well. Overall, I'm really happy with today. Obviously my head is a bit all over the place after 18.”
When it stopped spinning, he would have realised how impressive his day’s work had been. Starting at level par, Hatton reeled off three birdies and a chip-in eagle from 144 yards between the third and seventh holes. He then opened the back nine with three straight birdies before adding another two from the 16th.
The 18th aside, it underlines a golfer in fine form. Following back-to-back victories in October, he has claimed a treble of top-20s. With the flat-stick working again this week, he is aiming to improve markedly on that. Even if his body isn’t playing ball.
“It was nice to hole putts again," Hatton said. "That was a big thing today. There was a little substitution with the putter from yesterday, so that seemed to work well. If I can keep putting like that for the rest of the tournament, then hopefully on Sunday, I'll give myself a good chance.
“But I felt a lot better today. Yesterday I was struggling with cramps in my back and a horrific blister on my foot. It's just the blister now, so a spoonful of cement at dinner and I'll be all right tomorrow.”