By Brian Keogh
Padraig Harrington got set for a weekend war with Justin Rose for the Order of Merit and roared: “It’s game on.”
As Rose hit a best of the day 68 to lead the Volvo Masters on four under, Harrington needs to turn it on after a second successive level par 71 left him alone in second place .
The Dubliner leads Rose by €657 in the money race but both men have to finish third at worst to overhaul absentee leader Ernie Els, who opted not to travel to Spain.
Rose, 27, has the upper hand heading in the last two rounds and Harrington will have his work cut out if the English ace continues to play as brilliantly as he did yesterday.
Set to go head to head with Rose today, Harrington said: “It’s very much game on for the tournament and very much game on for the Order of Merit.
“It’s exactly the situation I was hoping for at the start of the week and hopefully Justin and I can carry on tomorrow and sort it out sometime late on Sunday afternoon.
“Four shots is substantial. But it is not a huge difference. But yes, his scoring is very impressive. He’s doing well and if he shoots four under for the next two days, I think he will be the Volvo Masters champion.”
The big plus for Harrington is that Rose is desperate to get his first victory since he took the Mastercard Masters in Australia nearly a year ago.
Rose has soared to 12th in the world since then and while he finished no worse than 12th in all four major championships this season, he’s yet to win in 2007.
After wrapping up his fourth win of the year in Morocco last week, Harrington said: “He's had a great year, but I think he's very hungry for a win and he’d probably like to cap the year off.
“Players are very much motivated by that and if he hasn’t had a win, he wants it all the more.
“I have had a number of wins this year but I really want to win the Order of Merit.”
Rose might be Harrington’s natural successor as European No1 and he certainly looked the part on another windswept day on the Spanish coast.
Playing controlled golf, the Englishman had two birdies and three bogeys on the front nine but cranked up the pace with four birdies in a faultless back nine display that has set up a thrilling weekend battle.
The pick of his birdies came at the par-five 17th, where he took his caddie’s advice and sensibly laid up from a tempting lie in the rough.
He then pitched to 25 feet and rolled home the breaking putt to move four strokes clear of his Irish rival with 36 holes to go.
Explaining his strategy, Rose said: “I was ready to go and if he had given me the green light I would have done. But I have an experienced caddie and he said I could still make four laying up.”
The only player to break 70, Rose feels fully recovered from his tummy bug troubles and it was no wonder he was beaming afterwards.
After scoring two shots lower than anyone in the field, he said: “I felt so much better. I was really, really happy with that round of golf. Any time you have the lowest score of the day it's an achievement.
“It would be nice to cap the year off with a bit of silverware. But at the same time, I’m just focussing on what I have to do and not get ahead of myself.”
As for today’s head-to-head with Harrington, Rose is trying to play it down and concentrate on his own game.
He said: “It’s exciting for everybody involved. Putting on a show or entertaining is always a nice part of the job.
“But we are nowhere near the finish line and I am still going about my business and doing the same boring stuff, one shot at a time and all that.”
Harrington got off to a great start compared to Thursday’s first round, pucking up birdies at the fourth and fifth with brilliant pitch shots.
A bogey at the 163-yard sixth came when he changed clubs on the tee and decided to punch in a six-iron instead of a seven.
But the wind got up and he came up short in a bunker and did well to limit the damage to a bogey with a trickling four foot putt.
The Dubliner got up and down from sand at the seventh and ninth and after a frustrating time on the greens after the turn, he was annoyed to miss the 18th green from the middle of the fairway and drop a vital shot.
Comparing the course to a major championship set-up, Harrington said: “It’s right up there. I’ve seen major championship golf courses that have been easier.
“A lot is about picking good strategy and I got a little bit comfortable on the 18th and thought I would draw the ball into the left to right wind to a left hand pin.
“It was a mental error there in the shot I picked to play and you can’t get complacent at all.”
Swede Henrik Stenson crashed out of the race to win the tournament and snatch the Order of Merit when he carded a 76 to fall to 12 over.
But compatriot Niclas Fasth is still in with a shout of getting the win he needs after a 60 foot eagle putt at the 17th helped him move into joint 10th on three over after a 70.
Fasth said: “Nothing was happening for me so that gave me a tremendous lift. I’m too far back for my own liking, but it could work out. Who knows? We could have a dramatic end to it.”
Ulsterman Ronan Rafferty finished the day propping up the 55-man field on 30 over par after an 89.
Despite his woes, Rafferty insisted: “I’m still smiling.”