SHANGHAI – The No. 1 ranking belongs to Lee Westwood for at least another week, which is the least of his concerns.
No matter how well he played Saturday in the HSBC Champions, where he kept bogeys off his card and matched the low score of the third round at Sheshan International with a 5-under 67, it still wasn’t enough to overtake Francesco Molinari.
Molinari holed a 7-iron from 160 yards for eagle. When it looked as if there might be a two-shot swing, he knocked in a 10-foot par putt on the 16th hole to stay in the lead. And after Westwood chipped to tap-in birdie range on the par-5 18th, Molinari ended his up-and-down day with a 10-foot birdie for a 67 to stay one shot clear.
So when Westwood was asked how it felt to stay No. 1 in the world – virtually a lock the way Tiger Woods, Martin Kaymer and Phil Mickelson all fell apart – he made his intentions perfectly clear.
“I haven’t thought about world rankings or anything like that,” Westwood said. “I’m here to try and win the HSBC Champions. The world rankings are just something that reflects the way you play.”
After his answer was translated into Chinese, Westwood took hold of the microphone for one last comment.
“Can I follow on?” he said. “When I play a golf tournament, I look at the leaderboard, but I don’t see any other names. I see my name and the scores. And right now, I’m one behind the leader, which won’t win the golf tournament. So I’ve got to get above.”
That’s proving to be quite a chore.
Molinari has more recent experience playing with the world’s No. 1 than anyone, and he’s faring much better this week.
He faced Woods in singles at the Ryder Cup, where the former No. 1 put on a dazzling display of shotmaking to reach 9-under par through 15 holes when he closed out the match.
Now comes Westwood, who replaced Woods atop the ranking last week and is playing as if he belongs there.
“They are both exceptional players,” Molinari said. “Tiger played really well at the Ryder Cup against me, and Lee is playing very well this week. To be honest with you, I can’t see a lot of difference between them.”
Molinari stayed in control with a shot he never saw – a soft 7-iron right at the flag on the 13th. Once it cleared a ridge in front of the green, he tamped down his divot and heard a loud cheer, then smiled when he realized it went in.
Westwood followed with a 9-iron to 6 feet for a mere birdie, doing his best to stay in range.
“It was a really eventful round, and it was a bit of a roller coaster, because I hit some great shots and some not-so-great shots,” said Molinari, who was at 14-under 202. “To still be one in front of Lee going into Sunday, it’s a really good position.”
Luke Donald of England squeezed everything out of his game for a 68 that left him four shots behind on a Shanghai leaderboard that had a European Tour feel. A year after an All-American final group, the top six players in the final World Golf Championship of the year are European Tour members.
The best American this year has been Woods, which isn’t saying much.
He could have returned to No. 1 by finishing ahead of Westwood, but that went awry quickly. He hooked his tee shot into the hazard on the par-5 second for bogey, then came up well short of the third green with a wedge for another bogey. Woods finished with a 73, and was 11 shots behind the leader.
Barring the greatest comeback in tour history, it will end his streak of 14 straight years with at least one PGA Tour victory. The record is 17 years, held by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Woods turns 35 next month, and this isn’t a streak he can start over.
“Not a very good day,” Woods said. “I missed a lot of makable putts, didn’t hit the ball very well and just never got anything going.”
Mickelson, the defending champion in Shanghai, made only one birdie against five bogeys in his round of 76, falling 14 shots back. Kaymer, the PGA champion who also had a chance to go to No. 1, shot 74 and is 13 shots behind.
Molinari, looking for his first victory of the year, has stayed one shot ahead of Westwood since the opening round. About the only player capable of interrupting this duel is Donald, who will join them in a final group filled with European Ryder Cup players.
Ernie Els, who can join Woods and Mickelson as the only players to win two World Golf Championships in one year, recovered from a 38 on the opening nine to shoot 71. He was at 8-under 208, along with Ross Fisher (69) and Richie Ramsay (71).
Padraig Harrington was in the group at 6 under thanks to the shot of the tournament. He holed a fairway metal for an albatross on the par-5 14th hole, although he dropped two shots after that in his round of 70.
“I’ve never had an albatross,” Harrington said. “I was hoping it was going to go close, but obviously when they all jumped up – you can never quite be sure in China – but when they all jumped up, I suspected it got in the hole. It was a nice bonus.”
As far as catching the leaders? Harrington feels they are too far ahead.
Westwood only has one shot to make up, but that has proved difficult through three rounds.