• Dubai Desert Classic

Gallacher leads McIlroy after stunning finish

February 1, 2014
Stephen Gallacher went 10 under through the last 10 holes © Getty Images

The distance from the desert of the Middle East to the velvet of Augusta National approaches 8,000 miles, but it might as well be light years away for Stephen Gallacher.

The veteran Scottish golfer has toiled all over the world in a professional career that has spanned nearly 20 years. He reminisced the other day with Tiger Woods about their Walker Cup encounter when they were amateurs in 1995, but since then their paths have rarely crossed.

Woods has won more major championships (14) than Gallacher has played (12).

And he's never received an invitation to the Masters.

That goal is within reach after a remarkable run on Saturday afternoon at the Emirates Golf Club, where Gallacher, 39, became just the fourth player in European Tour history to play nine holes in nine under par.

His score of 63 jumped him to the top of the leaderboard at the Dubai Desert Classic and earned him a final-round pairing on Sunday with Rory McIlroy.

After an indifferent start to his round, Gallacher played the last 10 holes in 10 under par. His run included eight birdies, an eagle and a par, which came at the par-four 14th, the only routine hole in the stretch. He knocked it on the green and two-putted from 30 feet.

"Misread it," he quipped.

It was a dream-like round and put him in position to win for a third time on the European Tour after starting the day four shots behind McIlroy. He takes a two-stroke lead into the final round, with a four-stroke advantage over American Brooks Koepka and Denmark's Thorbjorn Olesen.

"It's up there obviously," Gallacher said about where the round ranks in his career. "To get yourself back in contention when you needed to do it was good."

Gallacher had a 62 here a year ago on his way to victory in the Dubai Desert Classic, just the second victory of his career to go with a 2010 Dunhill Links title.

But unlike the PGA Tour, where a victory brings an automatic invitation to the Masters, European Tour titles come with no such guarantees. Aside from high finishes in the other majors, the best way in to Augusta National is through the Official World Golf Ranking.

At No. 67 in the world, Gallacher is in position to climb into the top 50 by the March 30 deadline. Even without a win, he has an excellent chance of securing a spot in the WGC-Accenture Match Play and is already in the WGC-Cadillac Championship. Those tournaments will offer the opportunity to get into the coveted top 50 and earn that first trip down Magnolia Lane.

Somewhat surprisingly, Gallacher was not asked about the Masters. Perhaps it is because it has been such an elusive goal, and major championships have been so rare. His best finish was a tie for 18th at the 2010 PGA Championship and he's missed seven cuts.

He was, however, posed a question about the Ryder Cup, a perfectly logical query given its importance in Europe and the fact that the 2014 event will be played at Gleneagles in Scotland. Gallacher has never been on a European Ryder Cup team, either, and his answer might suffice for his views on the Masters.

Rory McIlroy sits two shots back of Stephen Gallacher entering the final round © Getty Images

"The thing with the Ryder Cup is to try and shelf it and put it to the back of your mind," he said. "You can't think of it now. If I go about my day-to-day stuff and you're preparing to win tournaments every week, and if you can just knock a couple of them off, then you've got a real chance. But obviously that's a long-term goal of mine to get to the Ryder Cup."

The Masters is a much more immediate goal, and even more so than that is defending his title here. Gallacher gave himself an opportunity to accomplish that doing what he did on Saturday. And it came despite a slow start that saw him one over par through eight holes.

"But then I hit a beautiful drive and a 7-iron to about 3 feet (at the ninth) and from then on I never missed a shot," he said.

"That's phenomenal," said McIlroy, who shot 69. "I didn't know he was 10 under for the last 10 holes. That's some golf right there."

McIlroy is the closest competition and still the man to beat. He's dealt with a stomach issue the last two days and bemoaned some driving deficiencies after a phenomenal display off the tee on Thursday.

But McIlroy is clearly back on the path that saw him get to No.1 in the world in 2012. He won in Australia toward the end of 2013 and started this year with a runner-up finish two weeks ago in Abu Dhabi.

Gallacher, despite having won this title a year ago, was clearly the overlooked man when he was grouped with McIlroy and Woods for the first two rounds. But here he is about to play with McIlroy in the final round, with Woods a distant 11 strokes back.

"I thought I'd done all right playing with Woods and McIlroy the first couple of days," he said. "It was something not in the norm, so it's quite different to the normal stuff. There's a lot of things, outside agencies and stuff you've got to get used to a bit. I thought I had done okay with it."

He's done more than okay. Gallacher is a day away from his third European Tour victory - and perhaps making shorter that huge distance gap from here to Augusta National.

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