South Africa’s Erik van Rooyen took the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open by the scruff of the neck at Ballyliffin today as the home challenge faded with disappointing rounds from Shane Lowry and Rory McIlroy.
A sparkling bogey-free third round of 66, with all six of his birdies coming on the front nine of the Glashedy Links has put van Rooyen into a four-shot lead on 14-under-par going into Sunday’s final round, within touching distance of a maiden European Tour victory at his 34th attempt.
His nearest rivals are fellow 36-hole leader Ryan Fox of New Zealand and Sweden’s Joakim Lagergren, four back on 10 under par, but it does look like any Irish players will be able to put pressure on the leaders after a day of disappointment at Ballyliffin.
None of the five home players who made the halfway cut were able to break par in their third rounds, leaving world number eight and tournament host McIlroy the best-placed Irishman following a level-par 72 that leaves him at one under for the tournament, 13 shots adrift of van Rooyen.
Lowry and qualifier Simon Thornton both carded two-over 74s to fall to level par for the week while Paul Dunne’s par kept him at one over, joined on that mark by Graeme McDowell who shot a one-over 73.
Instead it was van Rooyen’s day. The Johannesburg native admitted he was a relative stranger to links golf but showed no signs of inexperience as he raced into a commanding lead with a six-birdie front nine to make the turn in 29.
Then he played trouble-free golf on the way home to card a 66 that followed his seven-under second-round 65.
“It was a fantastic first nine, straight out of the blocks, birdie on one and holes a nice bunker shot on six which was great after a poor shot after the tee,” van Rooyen said.
“It’s exciting to lead at a Rolex Series event and leading here too. I haven’t played too much links golf, only the Dunhill Links and now this so I’m fairly new to it but I love it. It’s going to be a great weekend.”
Not so much for Lowry and McIlroy who failed to keep pace despite a day of some good scoring with England’s Andy Sullivan posting a 65 to move to six under to join defending champion Jon Rahm of Spain who shot 67.
Lowry had started the day at two under following a second-round 70 which had him talking about a turning point in a lacklustre campaign on the PGA Tour this year but birdies at the seventh and eighth, 14th and 17th were outweighed by six bogies that made for a gloomy post-round assessment.
“Not very good. To be honest, I don't - it's not very good. Severely disappointed. What can you do. You know, four-under scores out there. I just didn't do it today.
“I'm disappointed it didn't happen. Yeah, I just have to go out and try and shoot a good score tomorrow and see what happens. Whatever tomorrow brings, tomorrow will bring. But after playing my way out of the tournament -- doesn't matter what I do tomorrow. It's going to be a disappointing week.”
Following rounds of 70 and 73, McIlroy again failed to post a round in the 60s on Saturday with four birdies and four bogies in his third-round 72.
“Pretty similar to the first couple of days. Hit the ball pretty well and gave myself quite a few chances. I struggled to capitalise on them but it's tough,” McIlroy said.
“It feels like this golf course, you should go out and shoot five or six under par every day, but it's a little trickier than that and yeah, it's tough walking off the course with even par when you've given yourself loads of chances.
“You know, I felt like if I had of shot something at least in the 68, 67 range today I would have given myself a decent chance tomorrow but I just try to round off the week with a good round tomorrow.”
Fox will not give up the chase in Sunday’s final round but he acknowledged he faces an uphill challenge if he is to reel in van Rooyen and the Kiwi finished on a high with birdies at 16 and 17 to post his two-under 70.
“Pretty happy in the end. It was a bit frustrating early on,” Fox said. “Felt like I gave myself a lot of chances. I drove the ball well, especially on the back nine and hit a couple putts that don't go in. It was very nice to birdie 16 and 17 and turn what was an okay day into a pretty good day and give myself a chance tomorrow.
“We could see ourselves all day, and Erik picking the ball out of the hole on the front nine and looked like he was going to shoot something silly. I guess thankfully for the rest of the field, he cooled off a little bit on the back nine but it's going to take something seriously special to catch him tomorrow.”