Wentworth: This was not a case of "who needs Rory McIlroy?", as the impressive crowds here would have dearly loved to have watched the world No 1 defending his BMW PGA Championship title. Yet there was little doubt that a rich Saturday drama featuring a record-breaking hole-in-one from an adored veteran as well as that rarest of birds, an albatross, from a burgeoning English star went a long way in making up for the Ulsterman's missed cut.
After a pulsating third round, the Italian Francesco Molinari and the Korean An Byeong-hun lead the way on 14-under with the Thai Thongchai Jaidee on 12-under. But behind the numbers on the huge leaderboards spread around the West Course, there were some delicious sub-plots. Not least from that old darling of the galleries, Miguel Angel Jimenez.
The 51-year-old made his 10th hole-in-one as a professional so claiming the European Tour record from Colin Montgomerie. Jimenez, who won here in 2008, hit a nine iron on the 154-yarder and after it span back into the cup, performed a matadorial jig. It is fair to suggest that the Malaga man has enjoyed enough chances to perfect the routine. Jimenez made his first ace on Tour 25 years ago. In 1990, just like in 2015, Jimenez made three of them.
"How so many holes-in-one?" Jimenez asked rhetorically. "Right distance, right club, hit a good shot. they're the ingredients you need... My irons, they are like darts." Last week, Jimenez won 288 bottles of beer for his hole-in-one at the Spanish Open. There was no prize this time; merely more adulation for a character who simply refuses to obey the conventions of how a modern pro should look, what he should eat and drink and how long he should last. The cheers which greeted his birdie on the 18th underlined his popularity and he dutifully played along, pretending the putter was his sword and driving it back into the sheath.
On 10-under after this 68, Jimenez is four off the pace and surely taking inspiration from McIlroy, who overhauled a seven-shot disadvantage in the final round 12 months ago.
This time around, the home support will gather around Tommy Fleetwood, the 24-year-old from Southport, who added to his ever-growing reputation with a brilliant 65 which took him to 11-under and within three strokes.
What he would give to play the four par-fives in six-under again. Fleetwood's progression on the long holes was thus - two, three, four, five. The holed seven-iron from 198 yards on the fourth was the first albatross of his golfing life - both competitively and non-competitively - and set him up for a charge from a place outside the top 10 up to fourth.
On the 12th, a 20-footer brought an eagle and there was a two-putt birdie on the 17th. Fleetwood had an opportunity from 10 feet for a birdie on the last and although he was disappointed to miss, it did make his scorecard look tidy.
Ranked 54th in the world, Fleetwood is due to follow up his maiden win at the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles in 2013. Third in China five weeks ago, the former English amateur champion followed up with a quarter-final appearance at the WGC Match Play Championships.
Following an indifferent start
to the season, which was compounded by finishing on
19-over in the WGC Cadillac Championship in Doral, Fleetwood switched to legendary coach Pete Cowen. "Doral was a nightmare for me - it completely ate me alive," Fleetwood said.
"I played practice rounds with Henrik Stenson and Graeme McDowell, and watching them I knew in my own head that I couldn't compete with them." Fleetwood decided to act. His caddie, Phil "Wobbly" Morbey, fixed him up with Cowen, who happens to oversee, among others, Stenson and McDowell. "The work we've been doing has been really starting to pay off," Fleetwood said. "Pete's given 50 years of his life to the game and it's a privilege to work with him. I now have a fade in the bag; I didn't have one before, even at Gleneagles. I played pretty much with a draw all week. You cannot win events like this with one shot. This is the European Tour players' fifth major. Just to be competing for this title is massive."
Despite a mediocre finish to his 68, which saw him play the last five holes in one-over, so allowing An to claw back a three-shot deficit and draw level with his 67, Molinari, the two-time Ryder Cup player, remains the favourite.
Yet as yesterday reminded, Wentworth has a propensity for the unexpected.