Walton lands a leading role at last

 

Golf: There's life in the seasoned professional yet. At 42, Philip Walton is hardly in his dotage, and he emphatically illustrated this at St Margaret's yesterday when recording the first and only sub-70 round of this year's Irish PGA Championship.at St Margaret's

The former Ryder Cup luminary shot a four-under-par 69 to stand at seven-under for the tournament, largely attributable to a stunning finish to his round. At the par five 17th, Walton found himself a yard off the putting surface at the back of the green with the pin at the front: one smooth stroke of the broomhandle and 75 feet later, the ball disappeared for an eagle.

It didn't bode well at the final hole when the Malahide man tugged his approach about 20 yards left of the green, his view of the green stymied by a tree. No problem. He executed a beautiful flop shot with a 56-degree sandwedge, feather soft on landing before releasing into the hole. Walton admitted: "I was lucky the breeze was coming back into me because I could pop it up and let in hang there.

"I was patient and played quite well. The greens are difficult, there's a bit of grain on them and it's hard to get the ball into the hole." A four-time winner of this tournament, the last time at Belvoir Park, Belfast, in 1995, Walton will hardly be fazed by being paired with world number eight Padraig Harrington in the final two-ball of today's third round.

It's guaranteed to attract a sizeable gallery, a duel between two of Ireland's most respected professionals. One interested spectator will be Bob Torrance, who has coached Walton for over 20 years, while the Scot also ministers to Harrington's game.

The latter was reasonably pleased with his round. "I was working on a few things and was a bit muddled there at times which caused me to hit some good shots and bad shots. I played the par fives well. I had two very genuine eagle chances on 17 and 18. They were two good chances but I was happy to make birdie.

"It leaves me in good position for the weekend. I'm quite happy to still be in it. With five holes to go I was looking at maybe shooting 72. It was good to birdie two of the last three even if they are par fives, but you still have to do it. There were great crowds out there today; some would say there is more here than in Seville!"

Ballyliffin's Francis Howley is a further shot back. "I didn't hit it so well but have made the most that I possibly could have over the two rounds. I had 35 putts in the first round and 33 today. I need to cut that down a wee bit."

Raymie Burns endured frustration on the par fives en route to amassing a one-under-the-card 72. "I just didn't birdie any of the par fives. The way the wind was blowing all the par fives were reachable; I finished level par for them and that was the difference. I hit bad tee shots on two and missed four-feet putts on others.

"Normally I drive the ball perfectly but I was everywhere. I drove it well on the 18th because I figured out what I was doing wrong. I need to be saving more shots."

At one stage it appeared John McHenry, one of the early starters, would set a genuine target by reaching six under when eagling the third hole, his 12th. However back-to-back bogeys on the fourth and fifth proved a pre-cursor to a positively ruinous sixth hole where he ran up a triple-bogey seven.

"I knocked it in the rough (off the drive), hit a good three wood in but it just hit the bank and went in the bunker. The ball was above me and I just bladed it into an unplayable lie. I played as positively as I did yesterday, made eagle on the third but on the fourth hole, I was only 15 feet away. I had a sprinkler head in my way and had to go around it, knocked it six feet past and didn't get the one back.

"I'm not fooling anybody; I'm not sharp but am playing aggressively and positively. For 30-odd holes I was well worth my six under par. Unfortunately, the gremlins crept up and I had a poor finish. Hopefully I can make up for it at the weekend. It's a pity but that's just the way it is. I don't think I can win the tournament but I hope I can give it a good rattle."