Thomas Pieters and Ross Fisher happy to share friendly rivalry for Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship as Rory McIlroy waits in the wings
The pair will start Sunday's final round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club on -17 as they look forward to another 18 holes as playing partners.
So much for familiarity breeding contempt.
Having spent last week in Malaysia together as part of Europe’s EurAsia Cup-winning side, Ross Fisher and Thomas Pieters have now played alongside one another all three days at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, presented by EGA.
Thankfully, they seem to get on famously. It is a relief, too, given they have been paired again on Sunday, for the final round of their first regular European Tour event of the year.
This time, though, there’s the small matter of duking it out for the Falcon Trophy. Locked on 17-under par, the indivisible duo shares the 54-hole lead. Inseparable, but not insufferable.
“It was another good day,” Fisher said after his third-round 65. “Obviously great fun getting out with Thomas, third day in a row, a lot of fun, a lot of banter.
“Fingers crossed, we'll be paired again tomorrow, because it's been three fun, exciting days with Thomas and [caddie] Adam [Marrow] on the bag. So we'll go out and hopefully have some more fun.”
A birdie on the last, coupled with Pieters' par-save, means that wish has been granted. The two head out last on the National Course on Sunday, where they will look to increase their one-shot advantage over their current closest challenger, at least.
That just happens to be Rory McIlroy, who reinforced his return to competitive golf with a 65 of his own. He goes out with Matthew Fitzpatrick, one shot further back, as is defending champion Tommy Fleetwood. After that, there are 11 players within five of the lead, including world No 1 Dustin Johnson.
If Saturday included Fitzpatrick flirting with the course record - his 63 came up one short - there is a sense that Sunday will play slightly more difficult.
“Yeah, I've heard it's going to be quite windy," Fisher said. "And having seen [our caddies] get some of the pin [positions], there could be some beauties out there tomorrow.
“I'm hoping the Tour officials will see what the forecast is, set the course up tough, but fair. Looking forward to the challenge and see what happens.”
Without a win in almost four years, he should keep an eye on Pieters as well. The Belgian held the halfway lead, and five birdies on his front nine meant he stayed there all through Saturday.
The only real moment of concern arrived on the final hole, when Pieters found the shrubs off the tee and had to scramble to make par.
Or to put it his way: “Hit a terrible drive and then chunked it coming out and hit a terrible 3-iron, bad bunker shot and good putt: five.”
A three-time winner on the Tour, Pieters is in prime position for a first victory since August 2016. Buddy Fisher, and butterflies, permitting.
“First event out and that's where you want to be,” he said. “You want to have a bit of nerves and feel like you're in contention. I look forward to tomorrow.”
McIlroy could throw a spanner in the works. The four-time major champion, a four-time runner-up in Abu Dhabi, sits a single stroke back following eight birdies and a bogey. It was his only dropped shot of the week, so little need to change the game plan now.
“Same as the last three days,” McIlroy said. “Just go out and try and shoot the best score I possibly can. I felt really comfortable, really relaxed out there.
“Haven't been looking at leaderboards too much. Just been trying to play my game, and it's going pretty well so far, so I'll try and do the same thing.”
Updated: January 20, 2018 07:28 PM