VIRGINIA WATER, England – Thomas Bjorn already has one arm inside his third Ryder Cup jacket. He’s just one round away from a making sure a 2014 blazer becomes a prized possession in his wardrobe.
The Dane will take a five-shot lead over Luke Donald into the final round of the €4.75 million BMW PGA Championship. Bjorn is 15 under after 54 holes, with victory virtually sealing his place on Paul McGinley’s European squad that will take on the United States at Gleneagles this September.
Bjorn is currently lying third on the European points list. The top four on that list earn Ryder Cup spots. With a first-place prize of €791,660 up for grabs, with each euro worth one Ryder Cup point, victory means Bjorn can start planning for his third appearance in the biennial match.
Bjorn started the final round tied for the lead at 10 under with Ireland’s Shane Lowry courtesy of his course-record 62 on Thursday. His 5-under 67 on Saturday took him clear of the field.
A double bogey at the first hole knocked Bjorn back but he more than made amends over the back nine. The Dane put together a string of six consecutive birdies from the 11th hole to take a lead that might just be unassailable. It might have been seven if he hadn’t pulled a 5-foot birdie putt at the 17th hole. He then made it seven birdies in eight holes with another at the 18th hole to come home in 30.
“I got off to a really rough start,” Bjorn said. “I had a lot of loose swings early on. I hit a really good shot on 10 and then I started feeling comfortable about the way I was swinging.
“Putts just started dropping and all of a sudden you get in that zone or that frame of mind, and everything just goes your way. I even hit a poor tee shot on 17 and got away with it.
“There’s a couple of names on that leaderboard that you should never count out of your mind. I’ve got to go out and try to play some good golf and try and be aggressive when I can, try and be smart when I don’t really need to be aggressive, and try and keep them at arm’s lengths tomorrow.”
Donald is well placed to take advantage if Bjorn falters. The Englishman can become a member of a select club. Donald can join Peter Alliss, Sir Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Colin Montgomerie as three-time winners of the European Tour’s flagship tournament.
The Englishman seems to feel just as much at home in this championship as the above Hall of Fame members did.
Donald only needs to drive onto the well-heeled Wentworth Estate to get into contention. He won back-to-back here in 2011 and 2012, finished second in 2010, third in 2008 and seventh in 2007.
The expression is “horses for courses.” The Englishman is a thoroughbred around the Wentworth West Course, even when he’s not quite on his game.
“Coming to a place you’ve won, you know that the course sets up pretty well for you. This place, Hilton Head, Tampa, there’s certain courses where even despite not having my best…I’m able to get into contention somehow.”
He’s certainly in contention to win Europe’s flagship event for the third time, but he’ll have to rely on Bjorn struggling.
Rory McIlroy remains in the hunt after a third-round 69 to lie seven shots off the lead. The Northern Irishman also double bogeyed the first hole, but played the next 17 holes in 5 under.
“I didn’t get off to the greatest of starts,” McIlroy said. “I was able to come back and make a few birdies and take advantage of the par 5s. I’m a little bit disappointed I didn’t birdie 18 just to edge a shot closer to the lead. But I’m in the mix, I’ll go out tomorrow, try to shoot a low one and see what happens.”
It’s Bjorn’s tournament to lose, but the smart money says the bigger Ryder Cup prize will drive him on to his 16th European Tour victory.