Rose makes running on merit in two-horse classic

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The Independent Online

There was plenty of order and so much merit in Justin Rose's 68 here in the second round of the Volvo Masters yesterday. It was the only sub-70 round of the day and was brilliant enough to move him four shots ahead of his nearest pursuer, the identity of whom promises to make this grand finale of the European Tour season exactly that.

Padraig Harrington is back in second, sitting on level par and in his mind rather prettily. He agreed that the gap between him and the Englishman is "substantial" and confessed his task on the Costa del Sol these next few days had been made all the more demanding by Rose's excellent form. But the Irishman is £450 ahead of Rose on the European Tour money list and his demeanour suggested he is doubly determined to retain his Order of Merit title. And at the very least make this a fight-to-the-line to remember.

Whatever, we can surely now dismiss Ernie Els from the equation; the South African who is almost £200,000 ahead in the standings, but instead elected to play, and alas struggle, in this week's Singapore Open. The chances of neither Rose nor Harrington finishing in the top three and so performing the requisite leapfrog appear to be on the minuscule side of remote, especially as Valderrama is proving so tricky. Granted, shots can be lost like confetti on this wind whipping off the Mediterranean, but they are also mighty difficult to pick up. Unless, your surname happens to be Rose, that is.

An early hint that the 27-year-old was on top of his game and had fully recovered from the bug which had threatened to make a mess of both his strides and his first-round card was provided on the par-three third, when he came within 12 inches of recording his second hole-in-one in as many days on the 181-yarder.

"It's strange to say but I actually thought I hit a better shot today," he said, going on to explain how he held up a five-iron into the gusts coming over the right of the green. The tap-in was more than welcome, however, as in his own words, "I was putting poorly". From the 10th onwards that was all to change.

The bombs started to drop and 32 shots later the field was scattered. By nightfall that man Harrington was the only other not being beaten to par, meaning the pair go out today in the head-to-head for which the officials, the sponsors, the fans, the protagonists even, had been praying. "It's exactly the situation I was hoping for at the start of the week," declared Harrington. "It's game on for the Volvo Masters and game on for the Order of Merit."

His confidence rang out to Gibraltar, but still, despite all his renowned doggedness, Rose must be fancied to prevail. There is not the just the Vardon Trophy to be won – which he claims would be "the pinnacle of my career" – but also his first tournament of the year. Considering the incredible progress made by the former boy wonder – from perennial major non-qualifier, to perennial major contender – that is a bizarre statistic and one which Harrington feels his young rival will be desperate to redress here. "That will have put the bit between his teeth," he said.

Meanwhile, mention should be given to the quartet in a tie for third on one-over; Graeme McDowell, Soren Kjeldsen, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Jyoti Randhawa. But that is all that is required – a mention. For essentially this a two-horse affair. Both thoroughbreds in a race that could just turn out to be a classic.