By Brian Keogh
Damien McGrane delights in describing himself as a grinder, a European Tour worker bee, sucking up the euro and tournament experience with the kind of patience and dogged determination that makes the legendary Bernhard Langer look like a whirling dervish by comparison.
But the news that McGrane has a three-stoke lead entering the final round of the Volvo China Open at Beijing’s CBD International Golf Club will come as no surprise to boyhood rival Padraig Harrington, who is one of Meath man's biggest fans.
“Damien is a top 50 player in Europe, no problem,” Harrington said. “He is very similar to what I was like when I first came out on tour. His attitude is just perfect. He is not looking around and watching what other people are doing.”
Never a man to use three words when one will do, the 37-year-old from Kells stands on the threshold of a maiden tour victory that would propel him into the top-six on the Order of Merit and onto the fringes of Ryder Cup contention.
Buoyed by a relentless short game and birdies at his last two holes, the former Wexford Golf Club professional carded a four-under par 68 to carve out a comforting three-shot lead over French rookie Michael Lorenzo-Vera (72) and the highly regarded English prospect Oliver Wilson (70) on 11-under par.
Yet while McGrane has yet to break into the winner’s circle, he has grown considerably in stature and confidence this season, finishing second in the Indian Masters just a week after playing twice with Tiger Woods in the Dubai Desert Classic, where he famously outscored the World No 1 by a single stroke in the third round.
Now in his sixth full season amongst the big boys and with tournament earnings approaching €2 million, McGrane feels ready to take the ultimate step up from journeyman status to tournament winner.
“It is nice to go out as leader and a little cushion is good,” said McGrane, who has singled putted an impressive 33 times in 54 holes and scrambled successfully nearly 88 percent of the time. “But it is a tough course and I must play my own game, focus on what I am doing.
“I have led tournaments before and it is all part and parcel of the golf business. I am expecting to play well again tomorrow and use my experiences in the past. I finished third last time I was leading going into the final round. I need to use that experience and push on and do better this time around.”
Interestingly, McGrane had a three-stroke lead entering the final round of the 2006 KLM Open in Holland but could only manage a one-under par 70 to finish a shot outside a play-off between Simon Dyson and Richard Green.
Second to SSP Chowrasia in February’s Indian Masters in Delhi, he knows that no-one is going to give him his first victory. He is going to have to go out and earn it with more good golf.
“I will be looking to go out there and shoot a good, low number again and come what may,” McGrane said. “It is up to me to go out there and make pars and birdies and make as many of them as possible and everybody else will have a tough job on their hands.
“I am confident in my own ability at the moment. I have been playing well for most of this season and I am just trying to run with that.
“It is all about coping with situations and I need to go out tomorrow and deal with the situation, play my own game and play well.
“I have been close for a number of years now and I am looking for my first win. I have to start somewhere and you start with one. The sooner it comes the better.”
One behind Lorenzo-Vera at halfway, McGrane got his third round off to a flying start by chipping from 20 yards for the first a hat-trick of birdies on the third before repairing back-to-back bogeys at the sixth and seventh with a brace of birdies at the 10th and 11th, where he rolled in a 50-footer.
After a series of par saves, a bogey at the 16th cut his lead to a stroke but he finished like a champion with birdies at the last two holes giving him a three-stroke advantage that will serve him well over the first few, nerve-tingling holes today.
While none of the top three title contenders have managed to break their European Tour duck so far, 27-year-old Wilson has had four second places in three years while 23-year-old Lorenzo-Vera’s only success came in last year’s Challenge Tour Grand Final.
Wilson played on Nick Faldo’s winning Seve Trophy team at The Heritage last year and while he’d love to win today, he’s seen McGrane grow in confidence since his Tiger-killing exploits in Dubai.
“I think the confidence he got from Dubai has shown and he has played fantastic this year,” Wilson said. “I don’t see a weakness in his game.”
Graeme McDowell, meanwhile, moved up from 29th to tied ninth after a 68 but at three-under par, he looks too far back to mount a challenge that could spoil McGrane’s big day.