Irish Open final round preview: Lucas Herbert leads, Tommy Fleetwood chases

Best bet

Rikard Karlberg each way 40/1

On a day when Australia's Lucas Herbert could have separated himself from the field, the 25-year-old found instead that the wind stymied his long game and the putter went a little cold.

No matter. Even when frustrated, he carded a 2-under-par 70 to total 15-under 201, good for a one shot lead over Johannes Veerman, with Justin Harding a further two shots adrift.

What will most please Herbert is that the big names are more or less out of sight: Rory McIlroy floundered with a Saturday 73, Shane Lowry was tripped up by a 74, only Tommy Fleetwood gained forward momentum with a five-birdie 68.

It lifted the genial Englishman into a tie for twelfth, six back of the leader, which under normal circumstances might be considered too big a gap to breach.

But Fleetwood will be aware that Herbert is seeking just a second European Tour title, Veerman a first, and ahead of him only Harding has a recent record of ruthlessness at the top of a leaderboard.

He may also be reminding himself that his last victory, at the 2019 Nedbank Challenge, came from this very position: six back of the lead, in a tie for twelfth, those ahead of him vulnerable to the looming shadow of a big name on the move.

That day he fired a 7-under-par 65, but still required help from those ahead of him and they cracked.

In the aftermath of his third round, Herbert talked about his approach this week, one that might well be viewed as the Third Way.

If leaderboard watching might be deemed 'reactionary', and non-leaderboard watching be 'detached', he is taking the 'target-focussed' route.

In theory, it removes the chaos and malign influence of the situation (the leaderboard) and also steers away from the threat of becoming too passive.

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"I'm trying to stick to my own goals," he said. "If I can get to 20-under, I feel like it's going to be pretty hard to catch, and if I am caught, someone has played really good golf and they probably deserve to win it.

"If I can stick to my own goals, hopefully holding a trophy or anything like that takes care of itself."

Let's take a closer look at the leading contenders.

Lucas Herbert: what he said

"I played okay. In one aspect, it's kind of frustrating. I could have really put a good one away and got away from the majority of the field, but 15-under probably has just left the door open a touch.

"So still going to have to really be on it tomorrow. Also it was pretty tough out there. The back nine, the wind was swirling and blowing a lot. Didn't hit a lot of bad shots, couldn't quite get some putts to fall. Felt like I maybe played all right but just didn't get the reward for it. Can't be too upset.

"The Irish Open is pretty cool and if you can win an event with Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy in the field, I don't think anyone's going to try to knock that out of your possession any time soon.

"Tomorrow is a massive chance and obviously in time to come I'll probably look back on it and realise it more, but at the moment, I'm trying to stay pretty focused on the moment and really feel like I just play my game and let that sort of take care of itself."

Lucas Herbert: form

The prospect of more fortnights-in-a-hotel-quarantining prompted the Aussie to find a second home in Orlando in the spring and that's paid off in recent weeks.

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He's enjoying being around his compatriots there and arrived in Ireland off the back of consecutive top 20s on the PGA Tour, most notably T18th at Muirfield Village (a Jack Nicklaus design, like this week).

He's held one solo 54-hole lead (two shots clear at the 2018 Portugal Masters) and two shared leads on the Australiasian Tour, but is yet to convert a win from either situation. On the other hand, he showed he can dig deep when winning the 2020 Dubai Desert Classic: he dunked a ball in water than hit a stunning recovery.

Johannes Veerman: what he said

"Really good start, quick start. I did hit in the water on three but it was a good strike so I wasn't too fussed about that.

"On the back nine the wind started blowing so you're more or less trying it avoid the bad spots because you're relying on your short game to get up and I did on the back side. To come in at 1-under was good.

"I'm trying to be a lot more process-oriented so I'm trying not to think too much. Obviously it's hard not to think about winning or any of those things. For the most part I'm thinking more about my preparation, what I'm going to do, what I'm going to eat for dinner tonight, kind of distract me with all of those things before I stare tomorrow in my face."

Johannes Veerman: form

He had none coming in, with just three cuts made in his last nine starts and not one top 40. He has, however, got a runner-up finish on a Nicklaus design in his locker - at the 2016 Indonesia Open at Damai Indah.

His form near the top of a leaderboard? He played very well at the Cyprus Showdown late last year, but the format failed him. He was the 72 hole low scorer but only the last 18 mattered. He was second after 54 holes at this year's Kenya Open before a Sunday 73 saw him drop to T16th. In all he is 0-for-3 from this position.

Conclusion

Nicklaus courses demand high quality approach work and it's been proven on his tracks since the return to action from lockdown.

At last year's English Championship Sullivan won leading SG Approach, the three winners at Muirfield Village all ranked top 10, ditto the two Harbour Town winners, and the champions at Sherwood and PGA National.

That's good news for Herbert, who currently ranks ninth in that category with Veerman 15th, Harding 43rd and Fleetwood 22nd.

Any notables flying in that category? Antoine Rozner leads it by gaining over a shot and a half in every round, but he's struggling on the greens.

The one to follow might be Rikard Karlberg, assuming he hasn't burned himself out. He's gained over three strokes on the field in the last two rounds and matched that feat with his putter on Saturday, too. He's four back, in a tie for fourth, and big at 40/1.

READ MORE: Sophia Popov's crazy ride: The AIG Women's Open champion looks forward to her defence at Carnoustie

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