Open de France: Ben Coley reports on Nicolas Colsaerts' run to the top

Nicolas Colsaerts strides into the lead at Le Golf National
Nicolas Colsaerts strides into the lead at Le Golf National

In the seven years since Nicolas Colsaerts produced a ballsy debut to play his part in a famous Ryder Cup victory, much has changed in his personal life. The lanky Belgian who was once the disc-spinning party boy of the European Tour has, becalmed by fatherhood, graduated into an avuncular, elder statesman role for those countrymen who are attempting to climb a ladder he has gradually been sliding down.

There comes a point in the career of every golfer when the slide must stop, one way or another, and, languishing dangerously close to the cut-off point for those chasing playing rights for 2020, Colsaerts has evidently decided that point is now. First he opened with a round of 67, then he bettered it with a brilliant 66 to reach nine-under and a share of the halfway lead in the Open de France.

Witnessing a golfer - any golfer - delve deep into their reserves of class and will is one of the great delights of the sport, and it's not a surprise that Colsaerts has found a workable game just in time. The surprise is that he's put it to use at Le Golf National, the same terrain which a powerful US team just could not handle in the Ryder Cup. It would have made much more sense had Colsaerts clicked next week, not this, but there he is at the very top of the leaderboard.

It's the first time since the 2017 Turkish Airlines Open, where he failed by one in a duel with Justin Rose, that this talented 36-year-old has been in such a lofty position at halfway. Saturday therefore asks an unfamiliar question, and should the weather deliver the wet and wild weekend which has been threatened in some forecasts, then there is absolutely no guarantee that he grinds this thing through to the death and secures his card for 2020.

Let's hope he does, after Friday's coverage served up a reminder of his prodigious talents. No, he isn't a convincing putter despite rolling in one from 40 feet at the 13th and yes, his short-game can look ugly despite getting him out of trouble more than once already, but when Colsaerts pounds down on a golf ball the result remains jaw-dropping.

And yet the charm of Colsaerts, as much as the explosive power which uncoils somehow in slow motion, has always been that he's got a number in him. It makes him fun to watch and easy to root for and, even in this most precise of rounds, there was still ample room for a lazy pull into the water at 18 and a position from which he did awfully well to drop just the one shot.

As such his lead is shared with George Coetzee - god help the galleries on Saturday - with the pair one ahead of the American Kurt Kitayama, another long hitter and one who has won twice this season to vault up the world rankings, into the conversation for rookie of the year. He's made a mockery of the idea that course experience is essential here, carding rounds of 66 and 68 and continuing the form which saw him go close in Italy last week.

With Richie Ramsay following, and Martin Kaymer alongside Benjamin Hebert and others in a share of sixth, there's something for everyone here. Hebert should have won the Scottish Open in July and has questions to answer on that score; Kaymer's form has been more out than in since summer; Ramsay is never to be trusted with the putter. And other potential candidates lurk deeper down.

This eclectic and often enigmatic mix of players is a direct product of the Open de France losing its status as a Rolex Series event and, with it, being forced back to a late-season slot with a smaller prize pool. In a strange way these demotions have added colour, as a fiendishly difficult course meets a largely low-on-confidence bunch who know that one foul ball at the wrong time could have lasting implications.

The result ought to be a weekend of drama; fun for the viewer, but not so much for those playing. Given the habits of the leaders, however, just about anything goes here: Colsaerts could well be away and gone this time tomorrow - it's just there's no way of knowing whether he's drowning in a sea of also-rans or away into the distance and an overdue victory, and the same goes for Coetzee.

Seven years have passed since Colsaerts carried Lee Westwood to a Ryder Cup point versus Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker, and then boasted afterwards that golf under pressure is about 'what's in your pants'. It's hardly the romance you'd expect to find 20 miles south of here, but it is grimly realistic: this is crunch time on the European Tour, and captain crunch himself is right where he needs to be.

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