Finland’s Ilonen holds a two-shot lead after 18 holes following a course-record, seven-under-par 64 on Fota’s newly-extended 7,043-yard Deerpark track as more than 16,000 spectators flocked to the East Cork venue as the European Tour event returned to the resort for the first time in a dozen years.
McDowell, feeling the effects of an arduous grind at last week’s US Open, followed by transatlantic travel and a practice round at British Open venue Hoylake on Tuesday, lies four shots off the pace at his home Open, having made his debut in the event at Fota in 2002.
Having survived an actual wobble at his penultimate hole yesterday, when his tired legs failed to respond on the par-three 17th tee and he left his five-iron 55 yards short of the pin on the 222-yard hole, McDowell rallied with a birdie at the last, his third from the last four, and set his sights on some well-earned rest and an Irish Open victory that would make his 13th appearance a lucky one.
“Nice to birdie three of the last four there,” McDowell said. “A bit of a whoopsy on 17, trying to throw myself with a five-iron and nearly fell over but these things happen. Generally happy enough with the way I hit it coming down the stretch. Room for improvement throughout the game but I’ll take three under par and run.
“Today was a key day. I felt like if I could get through the day in decent shape that I should get stronger this weekend. I maybe tried to do a little bit too much on Tuesday. Flew in, went to Hoylake, got here, had a few things going on. Maybe just didn’t get enough sleep under the belt, and I like my sleep.
“I’ll get a nice sleep and be ready to go. Not trying to make any excuses. There’s plenty of guys in the field coming back from Pinehurst, and you just have to get on with it. I’d dearly love to contend this weekend. I think this is my type of golf course.”
Playing alongside fellow Irishman and 2009 winner Shane Lowry, who carded a level-par 71, and defending champion Paul Casey, who finished round one at two under, McDowell’s group attracted easily the largest gallery of the afternoon’s play, where the course’s chief defence was its thick rough.
Those spectators had earlier in the day followed Irish duo Rory McIlroy, who carded a disappointing three-over 74, Pádraig Harrington, an encouraging 69, and Scotland’s Stephen Gallacher (73) but missed the round of the day as Ilonen fired a seven-under 64.
The Finn, 34, has form on these shores having won the 1999 West of Ireland and this would be a fourth professional victory for the world No 63 if he were to go wire to wire. Not that Ilonen is counting any chickens just yet, although he showed resilience to rebound from an opening bogey and finished strongly with five birdies in his last seven holes.
“On our 10th hole, on the first hole, I made a mess of it. I hit a big drive, middle of the fairway with sand wedge and I walk off with a five,” Ilonen said. “Luckily I didn’t get too angry with it, and I just get going and kept hitting greens and kept giving myself chances. I didn’t feel so good with the putter today but in the end, it started feeling good.”
“A couple of weeks ago in Sweden I was playing really well and I finished 32nd [in defence of his 2013 Nordea Masters title], I believe. It was still a real mystery how I finished 32nd that week, because I was actually hitting my best shots of the year there. So I just don’t know, maybe it’s there but we still have a long way to go.”
Ilonen leads by two shots from Swedish pair Magnus Carlsson and Robert Karlsson on five under as well as Germany’s Marcel Siem, showing no ill effects from his trip home from Pinehurst, where he finished tied for 13th.
Starting today’s second round a shot further back on four under par will be England’s Matthew Baldwin, Italy’s Edoardo Molinari, Denmark’s Anders Hansen and Daan Huizing of the Netherlands, while among those joining McDowell on three under are compatriot Michael Hoey, Frenchman Gregory Bourdy, 2010 Irish Open winner Ross Fisher, 2008 champion Richard Finch and Darren Fichardt, who lost a play-off to Soren Hansen at Fota in 2002.
That play-off featured four players and went to four holes of sudden death and if McDowell gets his way, the end of today’s play will see the gap closed on this year’s first-round leader.
“It was a nice boost for me coming in, birdieing three of the last four, despite my sod laid over on 17,” the Portrush man said. “Generally happy with things today.
“Can get better, can get much better. “I’ll eat good tonight and get some rest and looking forward to getting back out here tomorrow morning.
“Good vibe out there, good crowds, good atmosphere, good energy and good buzz. A lot of fun.”