Wiesberger, Ilonen ready for PGA close-ups

Bernd Wiesberger (left) will compete in the final grouping Sunday with Rory McIlroy, while Mikko Ilonen will be paired with Henrik Stenson at 2:25 p.m.

When European golf fans wake up Sunday morning, they will see two familiar names near the top of the leaderboard: Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger and Finland’s Mikko Ilonen.

While familiar in Europe, in the U.S. they are as unknown as Uber, the ridesharing service, was just 12 months ago.

In trying to help the assembled media learn more about Austrians in golf, Wiesberger tossed out Markus Brier as someone we might know since he was the first Austrian to win on the European Tour.

Let’s just stick with Wiesberger.

The 28-year-old Austrian was introduced to the game by his parents, who owned a sports store in the town of Oberwart, 125 km south of Vienna. Wiesberger started hitting shots when he was 3 or 4 years old, but didn’t get serious until he was 13 or 14.

Ranked 70th in the world, Wiesberger has won twice on European Tour. But his success in the U.S. has been minuscule, with a T-55 at the 2012 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and a T-33 at the 2014 WGC-Match Play Championship.

“I've never played well in the Majors,” Wiesberger said of his best major finish: a T-64 in the 2013 Open Championship. “I've played well in the other bigger events in Europe and won a couple. It's not the same, but you kind of get a feeling for what you have to do, how you have to handle yourself. It's just on a different level.”

Now the tall 6-foot-2 Austrian will walk into the lion’s den, the final group of a major championship Sunday with the sweet swing of Ulsterman Rory McIlroy to watch for 18 holes. According to some who have played with McIlroy during this short run, it can be intimidating.

“I'm friends with Rory and I'm sure it's going to be a nice situation out there tomorrow again,” Wiesberger said after playing with Phil Mickelson on Saturday. “Hopefully do the things well that I did today. Yeah, just enjoy myself.

"From now on, it's just a bonus, really.”

At 34, Ilonen has enjoyed a little more success on the European Tour with four wins, including this year's Irish Open.

It's been a year of ups and downs for the Finn. Early on he finished second at the Qatar Masters and fifth in Dubai, but fell off until an eighth at the Volvo China Open and then the win in Ireland.

The reason for the fall-off after Dubai was pure and simple. Ilonen has two small children back home in Lahti, 100 km north of Helsinki, and because of that he will not travel more than two consecutive weeks before going home to what is usually a very cold Finland.

Ranked 54th in the world, Ilonen has a little better major record with a ninth in the 2001 Open Championship and 16th in the 2006 Open Championship.

His record in the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA is missed cuts in all four attempts.

“I think I'm in a good position, not too far back,” Ilonen said of being four back of McIlroy. “I'm happy with it, to turn it around. I was 2 over after two, double on the second. To turn it around there was big for me.”

Coming into this week both Ilonen and Wiesberger were 250/1 according to Vegas; now Wiesberger is 15-1 and Ilonen 60-1.

The Austrian was willing to assess his skiing ability: “I would give myself probably a high single handicap, eight probably,” Wiesberger said. “I'm decent. I'm not going to fall unless somebody runs me over.”

Wiesberger had better watch out Sunday, because that is exactly what guys behind him and Ilonen have in mind.

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