WENTWORTH, U.K. -- Reigning champion Alex Noren has never gone lower through 36 holes on the West Course at Wentworth.
He heads into the weekend on 7-under-par 137 after rounds of 69-68. His card on Friday was bogey-free and included a pair of birdies on each nine. His defence of the title has been every bit as good as we should have expected of a man who has logged seven top 25 finishes on the PGA Tour this season and who carded a pair of 66s last time out in THE PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass.
There's just one problem: his playing partner on Thursday and Friday, Rory McIlroy, who carded a sensational 7-under-par 65 to burst clear of the field on 12-under 132. When Noren exited the scorer's hut and approached the waiting media he was his usual busy self, but he was also more than a little awestruck.
"Did you see that?" he gasped. "Can you believe it?" he asked, eyes blinking, a bewildered smile happily spreading across his face. "I mean, wow," he concluded. "That's the best round I've ever seen. I'm about to quit golf. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it. It was just shot after shot after shot."
McIlroy's long game was majestic. He reached the turn in 3-under-par 32 yet the numbers don't tell the story. On four of the holes he parred he had genuine looks at birdie from inside ten feet. If it suggested that he would shortly reap the rewards, a spell midway through the back nine proved it: a four-hole birdie blitz from the 12th. But for an inability to birdie either of the par-5 closing holes he would be even further distant of the chasing pack.
In theory Noren had a ringside seat. In practice it was as if he'd had a four hour sparring session because his next words had a touch of the punch-drunk about them. "It's good to play with a guy like that because it keeps you on your toes, but then if he hits just before you it almost puts you under more pressure to keep up with him." If that suggested an element of confusion all the more credit to Noren for hanging onto McIlroy's bootstraps.
The Northern Irishman has the rare ability to make playing golf appear as simple as a walk in the park. In contrast the ferociously hard-working Swede achieves the opposite; his pre-shot contortions, comfortably among the most elaborately complex in the game, cause wonderment among the fans who lined the fairways.
"Blacksmith", "axeman" and "lumberjack" were three words ticket holders were overheard using to describe Noren's pre-swing manipulations, yet in truth the swing itself is excellent. It has been, however, a work in progress.
"I've been looking for a draw all week," he admitted, "but I was missing both ways which is difficult to cope with. So after 12 holes I resorted to my push fade shape. It's more reliable for me when I'm not on my A game. You don't have to hit perfect shots, just more consistency would be nice."
Then it was if Noren realised that to talk of his own efforts was superfluous today. "You know what? 7-under is great given how I played. It's just-" He paused for a rueful smile. "I'm really happy with how I played.
Super happy. It's just a pity Rory is playing."