x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Gallacher one round away from repeat title at Dubai Desert Classic

Gallacher is seeking to become the first player to win back-to-back titles at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic after he blew past Rory McIlroy and rookie Brooks Koepka to take a two-stroke lead on Saturday, writes Steve Elling.

Stephen Gallacher of Scotland acknowledges the crowd on the 18th hole during the third round of the Dubai Desert Classic on Saturday. Gallacher holds a two-stoke lead on Rory McIlroy. AP Photo
Stephen Gallacher of Scotland acknowledges the crowd on the 18th hole during the third round of the Dubai Desert Classic on Saturday. Gallacher holds a two-stoke lead on Rory McIlroy. AP Photo

Two Scots were caught up in conversation, using slang terminology the other could not only understand, but wholly appreciate.

Stephen Gallacher, it was noted, had “gone a bit mental” on the back nine on Saturday.

Technically, it started a hole earlier, but why split hairs?

“I don’t know where to start, to be honest,” Gallacher said.

He sure knew how to finish.

Gallacher, 39, seeking to become the first player to win back-to-back titles at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, played his last 10 holes in 10-under par at the Emirates Golf Club, blowing past Rory McIlroy and rookie Brooks Koepka to take a two-stroke lead into the final round.

Playing in the final group alongside Koepka, McIlroy did not learn of Gallacher’s incomprehensible run until after he signed his card and the Scot had blown past him like a desert dust storm.

“Oh, wow, I didn’t know that,” McIlroy said, eyes bulging slightly. “That’s some good playing, especially with the wind.”

Gallacher was one over for the round as he stood on the ninth tee box, whereupon he played the last 10 with eight birdies, an eagle and one par. He matched the course record with a 27 on the back nine.

“I hit a beautiful drive and a 7-iron on No 9 to about three feet,” he said, “and from then on, I just never missed a shot.”

In 24 stagings over two different Dubai venues, the Desert Classic has never had a repeat champion. That a ginger-haired, fair-skinned player from Scotland would be positioned to end the historical oddity seems a bit ridiculous. The game was invented in Scotland on land that was not irrigated or sculpted, except by the sea, wind and a few sheep.

Desert courses are manicured tributes to what man can accomplish with an large budget and a fleet of bulldozers. But for whatever reason, Gallacher has come to love the 26-year-old Emirates Golf Club. Precisely why he has played so well over his last seven competitive rounds is another matter altogether.

“Haven’t got a clue,” he said.

Gallacher matched the tournament scoring record when he finished 22 under last year, when he entered the final round with a three-stroke lead. For the second Sunday in succession on the Majlis Course, he will play in the final group, this time paired with McIlroy, the world No 6.

McIlroy was in the final group on Saturday, exchanging howitzer missiles off the tee box with the equally long Koepka. The lead changed hands in entertaining fashion a couple of times between the two South Florida neighbours before they noticed that Gallacher, playing five twosomes in front of them, had blown past.

Gallacher birdied three holes on the back nine from inside a foot, but made his share of long ones, too, including a 30-footer on No 13 for an eagle.

“It seemed every putt went exactly where I hit it,” he said.

So did every drive and approach shot.

The front nine could not have been more different, though. He began with seven pars in succession, then bogeyed the eighth. But in a key moment, Gallacher saved par on the second when he was forced to take a penalty drop after hitting a ball into a desert bush.

Maybe it was clairvoyance, but McIlroy, walking from the ninth green to the 10th tee, told fiancee Caroline Wozniacki, “I need some birdies.”

But nobody could have kept up with Gallacher, 39, who was McIlroy’s playing partner in the first two rounds along with Tiger Woods, who is tied for 37th. More impressively, the breeze was blowing just enough to cause problems with picking the right club.

“Stephen playing the way he did coming down the back nine is very, very impressive,” said McIlroy, who only hit four fairways yesterday. “I feel like I can catch him up tomorrow. So, focus on fairways and maybe try and hole a few more putts, and see where that leaves me at the end of the day.”

Nobody has been more dialled in over the past seven rounds on the Majlis Course than Gallacher, who is a collective 38 under in that scintillating stretch, with seven eagles.

“The good thing is,” he said, “you’ve got good memories and good thoughts of what happened the year before.”

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