Richard Sterne birdied the closing hole to stay one clear at the summit of a congested leaderboard at the half-way stage of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club on Friday.
The South African, who opened with a blazing 62, mixed four birdies, including three on the back nine, in his 2-under 70 to go 12-under for the tournament, leaving Thorbjorn Olesen of Denmark, Tommy Fleetwood of England and Scotland’s Stephen Gallacher trailing in his wake.
With Germany’s Maximilian Kieffer, Denmark’s Andreas Harto and Chris Doak of Scotland lurking one shot further back at 10-under, the prognosis for the next two days points to an absorbing battle before the final putt.
Among the notables, Lee Westwood and defending champion Rafael Cabrera-Bello will require something special to track down the leaders, both finishing the day tied for 26th on six-under.
It all took one bad hole to undermine what would have been a solid round for Westwood.
The Englishman, who signed off with a 71, failed to get up and down after driving into the sandy waste on the 359 yard 17th and had to settle for a double-bogey.
Spain’s Sergio Garcia, playing with a sore shoulder, needed to summon every ounce of energy to string together an excellent round of 67, highlighted by an eagle at the 18th, to finish the day tied 8th along with France’s Romain Wattel and ‘golf in DUBAi’ ambassador Jeev Milkha Singh.
"On the 14th green I told my caddie if it does not get any better after 18 (his ninth hole) we will probably walk off," said Garcia, a 10-time winner on the European Tour. "Then unfortunately we started making birdies and eagle and I thought 'What do we do now?'
"I got the physio out and he worked on it. It feels a little bit better, but needs to get better," said the Spaniard, who finished runner-up last week in Qatar.
Overnight leader Sterne needed a birdie to pull clear of the jam-packed leader board and he delivered just what the doctor ordered, comfortably rolling in his putt from five feet.
"The course was a lot tougher with the wind and the greens definitely firmed up a bit. I think it's going to be quite tricky coming to the weekend. There's a lot of guys bunched up and you're going to have to play pretty well to be there on Sunday,” said Sterne, a five-time winner on the European Tour.
"I had a long time sitting at home watching all the guys and especially the South Africans winning, so it's nice to be back in the action and to have a chance."
Former Challenge Tour winner Fleetwood, 22, and Dane Olesen, 23, remained bogey-free after 36 holes. “I have big pressure on myself, also. I believe in myself and I want to achieve my own goals, and that's the biggest pressure,” said Olesen after carding a 66.
Young Fleetwood said he is feeling quite comfortable with his game so far. “It's just really nice to play well and put yourself in those positions; it's a good leaderboard up there and hopefully I can just continue into the weekend.
Scotland’s Gallacher felt it was a lot trickier with the wind switching directions all afternoon, but the 38-year-old nephew of former Ryder Cup Captain Bernard was delighted to be still in the hunt.
The half-way cut fell at three-under 141, matching the tournament’s low cut recorded in 2001 and 2007.
Among those who missed out on playing at the weekend included Colin Montgomerie, Thomas Bjorn, Stephen Dodd, Paul McGinley and Edoardo Molinari.
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