Today is an important day for Rory McIlroy in his bid to become the world’s best golfer.
In what promises to be a fascinating duel in the final round of the Omega European Masters, the world No 6 and reiging US Open champion can move to third in the rankings if he comes from two strokes behind Welshman Jamie Donaldson to win just his fourth tournament as a professional.
Donaldson has problems of his own as he bids to win for the first time on tour but sandwiched between the man who hasn’t won and the man who hasn’t won enough is world No 2 Lee Westwood, the man who hasn’t won a major.
Having watched world tennis No 1 and new love Caroline Wozniacki surge into the fourth round of the US Open in New York yesterday, McIlroy will be keen to lay some old ghosts to rest at Crans sur Sierre.
Three years ago he led by four going into the final round - just as he did at Augusta in April - but missed a five foot par putt for victory at the last and then an 18 inch putt to lose a play-off with Jean Francois Lucquin.
His putting frailites came back to haunt him in the Masters where he famously closed with an 80 that included a quadruple bogey at the 10th that Westwood (less than helpfully) suggested came about because “when he gets under a bit of pressure he does have a pull-hook in his bag.”
Westwood, you will remember, took delight in “bullying” McIlroy into dubmission to take the Dubai World Championship and the inaugural Race to Dubai from McIlroy when they were paired together for the first round in the emirate two years ago.
The “banter” escalated on Twitter with McIlroy giving as good as he got though he has now taken a step back on the social media forum since the Masters and his ill-advised public humiliation of “failed golfer” and TV pundit Jay Townsend.
McIlroy has since dealt with his putting problems in a positive way by changing his approach on the greens with the help of Dave Stockton. Barring a couple of abberations in the second round and a three-putt bogey late yesterday, he’s a far more confidence player with the putter in his hands these days.
It’s not that McIlroy is a poor putting but so mesmerising is his skill in every other department of the game that his misses appear to multiply the better he plays.
Westwood will be keen to lay down another maker for McIlroy after a best-of-the-day 64 left him a stroke behind Donaldson on 13 under par.
The Welshman gatecrashed what looked like a direct duel between McIlroy and Westwood when he birdied four of his last six holes for a 65 that left him at the head of affairs on 14 under.
McIlroy had reached 14 under with three holes to play when he followed birdies at the first and sixth with an eagle two at the seventh and back-to-back birdie fours at the 14th and 15th.
But he had to settle for a 67 after quickly dropped two shots in a row: three-putting the 16th and then overshooting the green at the next after finding a fairway bunker with an iron off the tee.
“It was not the greatest way to finish,” McIlroy said. “I’m still in there with a chance and I’ll be looking for a fast start and putting a bit of pressure on the boys. I feel the way my game is there’s a 61 or 62 out there.”
Westwood has only just returned from holiday and given his lack of recent tournament play, Donaldson’s inexperience and McIlroy’s occasional frailties, the winner could be lurking in one of the earlier groups.
Dane Thomas Björn (66) - last week’s Johnnie Walker Championship winner - England’s Gary Boyd (68) are only three behind.
As for the rest of the Irish, Peter Lawrie continues to play well. The Dubliner followed his Friday 66 with a 69 to share 15th on eight under - six off the pace.
Darren Clarke would be contending for victory had he had a better week on the greens. Tied for 25th on six under, he shot a 69 on Saturday but has yet to break the 30 putt barrier in any round.
Michael Hoey is tied for 51st on one under after adding a level 71 to a brace of 70s.