Irish finding form as Masters looms large

Rory McIlroy and Pádraig Harrington, two of Ireland’s five challengers in this week’s Masters, honed their skills ahead of Augusta with impressive performances as they remained very much in contention for the major prizes entering the closing holes in the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio.

However, the 31 year-old Martin Laird, a native of Glasgow who plies his trade on the US PGA and won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2011, was just two ahead of McIlroy as an exciting tournament came to an exciting climax.

After Saturday’s third round, McIlroy was four off the lead and when he reached the turn yesterday in 33, three under, he was only just one off the pace. There didn’t seem to be anything amiss with his golf swing or his new Nike golf clubs and indeed if anything it was a relatively cold putter that prevented him from getting to the head of affairs.

Ominously, though, a wildly hooked tee shot off the 10th tee suggested that things were still not in full working order. He plunged his attempted recovery into a green side bunker and took three more to get down. That knocked him back to eight under par for the tournament, three behind the fast finishing Martin Laird, but with good reason to feel good about his belated decision to add the tournament to his schedule on the urging of his shrewd and experienced caddie JP Fitzgerald.

“Just to get more competitive, that’s the main thing,” McIlroy declared yesterday before tackling the extremely testing San Antonio. “Going into the final 18, somewhere around the lead a few shots back, it’s a nice position to be in, and it would be great to get off to a fast start and get in the mix and sort of have that feeling again. You go out there and you try your best. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, you try to finish as high up as you can.”

McIlroy has taken criticism over the years for not fully committing himself when things were not going according to plan but that charge could not have been levelled himself as the lead fluctuated through a whole host of golfers. He was 11 under par, one behind Laird, with two holes to play, after a glorious birdie at the 16th.

Harrington’s troubles with his putter continue but he stood six under par sharing 11th through 16.

Offalyman Shane Lowry stood three under for the round and five under overall in a tie for 14th.

However, when a birdie at the long 18th would have put him into the top 10, instead he took a bogey six and slipped back into a tie for 15th, still his best result to date on the US PGA Tour.

From a European viewpoint, there were many other talking points, most notably 33-year-old Marcel Siem, winner in Morocco on the European Tour the previous week, and at 51st, an agonising one spot outside the automatic top 50 who receive automatic invitations to the Masters. The pony-tailed German was within breathing distance of the lead until he ran up a triple bogey seven at the 11th to destroy his prospects of victory and with it a first ever place in the Masters field.

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