If Paul McGinley was a great putter instead of just a good putter, he’d have double digit European Tour wins instead of just five.
Who knows, he might also have saved some wear and tear on his knees, given the untold number of times we have seen the three-time Ryder Cup winner do his knee-flex of frustration every time another seemingly perfect putt burned the edge of the hole on its way past. We’re just kidding, of course, but even the Dubliner would admit that it’s been frustrating at times.
“There was a goalkeeper in the hole and he played a blinder,” McGinley once said after a particularly trying day on the greens.
Of course, McGinley is best known for actually holing a hugely important putt to give Europe the 2002 Ryder Cup at The Belfry, much to Padraig Harrington’s amusement.
On Saturday at Blackstone Golf Club in Icheon, the 45-year old Irishman took advantage of windless conditions to birdie five of his first six holes en route to a stunning, seven under par 65 that gave him the clubhouse lead in the Ballantine’s Championship on seven under and his lowest round on tour since he shot a 64 in the KLM Open seven and a half months ago.
He had just 25 putts - seven fewer than he chalked up in Friday’s 73 - but by day’s end he was tied for fifth with the evergreen Miguel Ángel Jiménez (69), seven strokes adrift of the impressive Austrian Bernd Wiesberger, who also shot 65 to give himself the best possible chance of a maiden European Tour triumph.
The 26-year old from Vienna came home in 31 to move five strokes clear of Australia’s Marcus Fraser on 14-under and six ahead of England’s Oliver Fisher and Chile’s Felipe Aguilar.
Caught on the wrong side of the draw for the first two days, McGinley knew he was likely to trail at the end of the day but insisted he was still keen to rack up what would be just his third top-10 finish over the past two and half years on the European Tour.
“The round is obviously very special,” McGinley said. “My start set me up beautifully, five-under after six, it’s a dream start. I don’t think I’ve ever started a round like that before. To keep making birdies the way I did was great. That set me up nicely and I played solid. But the start was the key, between shooting 70 and shooting a 65.”
Battling chronic knee problems, McGinley has eased himself into the season after undergoing treatment on his left knee for the umpteenth time at the end of last year.
“To be honest, I’ve played quite well this year. I’ve only played four events this year and I’ve played quite well in all of them and not putted particularly well,” he said. “Obviously I’ve putted better this week. That’s the difference, the difference between having an average week and a good week is so small nowadays.
“Often the difference is one good round out of your four. I’ve had that now, and back it up with a good score again tomorrow is important.”
McGinley has former tour player Simon Hurd on his bag this week and the Englishman has joked that he could have his biggest ever golfing pay day on Sunday. Though he also played on the Asian Tour, the 38-year old from St Albans’ best finish in 108 European Tour appearances between 1996 and 2009 was a share of 10th in the 2007 Johnnie Walker Classic which earned him €33,427.
McGinley wants to do better for the Druh Belts owner than that - Druh is Hurd spelt backwards - but would need to win the €367,500 top prize to pull it off.
“He was second in the Pakistan Open,” McGinley said of Hurd’s best performance on tour, “and hopefully I can better that achievement tomorrow with his caddying.”
“He’s a real character as we know, and we’ve had a lot of fun out there the last few days,” explained McGinley, whose regular caddie ,’Edinburgh’ Jimmy Rae, is having a week off rather than flying to Korea for just one tournament.
“He’s a good friend of mine. We are rooming together, as well, too. He couldn’t get a hotel room, so we are spending time on the golf course and actually rooming together, too. We’ll have enough of each other at the end of the week I would say.”
McGinley is another of golf’s characters and only the hardest of hearts would begrudge him the 2014 Ryder Cup captaincy at Gleneagles. He may be the unanimous choice next January or face a challenge from Jiménez, who will partner him in Sunday’s final round.
The 48-year old Spaniard is one of the most popular men in world golf and you can see why, given his colourful, happy-go-lucky attitude to the game.
Despite firing three birdies in an faultless 69, he had 32 putts and lamented his lack of success with the blade by mocking both himself and his caddie Manolo.
“With 32 putts, you have nothing to do in the tournament,” Jiménez said with a grin. “Manolo helps me read the greens but it is like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles are reading the putts, you know.”
Shane Lowry finished with two birdies for a 70 that left him tied for 29th on two under while Gareth Maybin’s excellent 67 saw him move up to 35th on one under.
Damien McGrane had a bad day off the tee, however, and a 73 dropped him to joint 50th on one over.
As for Wiesberger, the Austrian was more than pleased to shoot a second consecutive bogey free 65 to take a commanding, five-stroke lead.
“I think that’s what they call a great day at the office,” he said. “It was fun out there. It was nice conditions again like yesterday, and the course was really well set up. I enjoyed myself, I made a lot of putts and that was the key to the day. Perfect.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever carded two bogey‑free 65s in a row so that was great as well. On the greens, I really felt like I saw the lines perfectly and even though I didn’t hit it as close as I wished on some occasions, I felt that I could make birdies from anywhere.”
Last season Wiesberger – who won twice on the Challenge Tour in 2010 – finished second twice on The European Tour which helped him end the year in 64th place in The Race to Dubai – the highest ranking of his European Tour career.
“I think The Challenge Tour experience will help me tomorrow but I’ve never gone into a final round with a five shot lead as I came from behind in Lyon and two shots was the lead going into the final round in Toulouse,” he said.
“Anyways, it feels like I’m getting into position more often, and I played well when I was in those positions in the last half of last year. The last two years have been a good preparation so I hope they pay off tomorrow.”