Jumping Jaidee well in the mix

The former paratrooper with the Thai army stands on the brink of his biggest triumph at the Dubai Desert Classic.

Thongchai Jaidee lines up a putt on the fifth hole yesterday. He finished the day three-under par.
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DUBAI // Thongchai Jaidee laughs off the suggestion that the serious back injury which almost wrecked his career as a professional golfer was a legacy of jumping out of too many aeroplanes during his previous occupation as a paratrooper in the Thai army. The rejuvenated Jaidee has certainly been a high flyer in Dubai over the last three days and Asia's top player today stands on the brink of his biggest triumph as he is in a four-way tie for the lead in what promises to be an exciting final round of the Dubai Desert Classic.

Jaidee, 40, who is inspired in his pursuit of stardom by last year's USPGA triumph by South Korea's YE Yang over Tiger Woods, is no stranger to the winner's circle himself having collected 12 career titles. Four of those have been in European Tour events but they would all be overshadowed by an victory over a high-quality line up for this final event in the Desert Swing. That prospect is some way off yet, though, as proven Middle East champions of the calibre of Lee Westwood and Alvaro Quiros accompany him at the top of the leaderboard along with yesterday's playing partner Miguel Angel Jimenez.

Several other big names are well within reach of the title, including three with UAE-winning credentials: defending champion Rory McIlroy and Abu Dhabi victors Martin Kaymer and Paul Casey. Jaidee, who is looking forward to locking horns with some of Europe's finest, was indebted to his outstanding wedge play on the outward nine when he gave the impression several times that he was about to crack under the pressure of front running.

Three times in succession he missed greens and on each occasion chipped close enough to make the par-saving putt a formality. When he hit the greens during that sticky patch his putter proved as trusty as his wedges. "I was very lucky on that front nine," he admitted. "I missed the green five times and each time I managed to get up and down. The four greens that I did hit, I made birdie on three of them so I ended up having only 10 putts on those nine holes."

Having improved his aggregate score to 11-under by the turn, it seemed Jaidee - three shots clear of the field by the 10th - was guaranteed a healthy lead to take into the last 18 holes. However, the easier back nine proved frustrating as he had to settle for nine successive pars and watch as a patient Jimenez wiped out a four-stroke deficit in their personal duel with birdies at 11, 13, 14 and 17.

"I think I played better on the back nine but the birdies just didn't come," said Jaidee. "But I have to be happy overall. Three-under par is a good score when going out in the lead." Jaidee will resume his rivalry with Jimenez this afternoon while another Spaniard, Quiros, is oozing confidence after shooting an outstanding 67 on a day when he felt he could have struck the ball better. "I've no idea what I will have to shoot," said Quiros.

"Even if I shoot 10-under, one of the others could shoot 11-under, so you just don't know what's going to happen." Quiros goes out last today with Westwood, who will again be the man to beat less than three months after his faultless performance in running away with the Dubai World Championship on the Earth Course. Chasing the leading quartet two strokes behind is the defending champion McIlroy, while Italy's Edoardo Molinari and Australia's Marcus Fraser share sixth position a further shot back after they accompanied each other to two-under-par 70s yesterday.

wjohnson@thenational.ae Coverage of the final day's play starts at 1pm, Showsports 3