On a glorious summer’s day in East Cork there was a very warm glow being generated by Irish golfers as the 24,151 crowd were treated to some serious moves up the leaderboard from McDowell, Pádraig Harrington and Gareth Maybin, while the biggest roar of the day came beneath the evening sun as West Waterford amateur Gary Hurley sank a 55-foot putt at his final hole not just to make the cut but move to within six shots of Ilonen’s lead, which stands at 10 under par.
Not every Irishman joined the party, the most notable casualties of the cutline being Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, who each missed by a stroke at one over par. Yet there will be eight survivors teeing off in today’s third round, including Major winners Darren Clarke, Harrington and McDowell, who stands best poised at eight under par to make a bid for Ilonen’s lead and become the first home Irish Open winner since Lowry in 2009.
What a difference a year makes. At Carton House in 2013, Black Friday accounted for all four of Ireland’s Major champions, leaving Lowry to carry the torch, the former champion finishing tied for fifth behind Paul Casey.
This weekend the workload will be shared but the onus is on McDowell following his second-round, five-under 66 yesterday which cut into Ilonen’s advantage. The Finn had started the day at seven under after a course-record 64 on Thursday, which he followed with a 68 that featured three birdies and a bogey, at the par-three 17th, in his last four holes.
McDowell was already in the gym by that time, his morning round alongside defending champion Casey and Lowry, a bogey-free affair sparked on his back nine by four birdies that built on his jet-lagged, post-US Open opening 68 and will have the Portrush man confident he can continue his upward trend.
“I feel like I will get stronger and stronger as the weekend goes on, and this morning was a little better. Only missed two fairways, iron play was a little sharper, and chipping and putting was a little bit sharper.
“Still room for improvement. I feel like my third week in a row I’m starting to feel my swing a little bit and trying to really kind of getting into a bit of a groove in my game. You know, perhaps a little bit under-golfed by design the last few months; maybe not playing enough, and I’m the kind of guy who needs to get a card in his pocket and get out there and get some competitive practice.
“So starting to feel my swing but plenty of room for improvement.”
McDowell was having fun out there yesterday as his group drew the biggest gallery of the morning wave.
“A lot of fun,” he said. “Typically this is a big week and a lot of pressure and expectation but I feel like perhaps coming off last week at the US Open, that pressure and expectation, that was maybe lower than normal.
“So perhaps a reason why I’m a little bit more comfortable in general. Looking forward to going into the weekend in some kind of contention, and enjoying the crowds here at Fota Island.
“It’s fun to be out there. It’s fun to play a user-friendly golf course like this one that doesn’t scare you on every hole like Pinehurst No 2 did last week where it was nearly unenjoyable. Fun to be enjoying my golf a little bit this week. Let’s hope this weather continues and we get some more Irish players on the board.”
McDowell’s wish was granted thanks to Harrington and Maybin, completing a trio of Irish players in the top-10 at the halfway stage. McDowell shares second place on eight under with England’s Robert Rock, who also shot a 66, and Frenchman Romain Wattel, who carded a 65.
Italy’s Marco Crespi (67) and English duo Simon Khan (66) and Matthew Nixon (65) lie on seven under with Maybin (65), Harrington (67), Italy’s Edoardo Molinari (69) and South Korean Kim Siwhan (67) on six under, four off the pace.
Not far behind is the sole surviving amateur, and a Paddy Harrington scholar at NUI Maynooth to boot. Gary Hurley finished his second round in the best possible fashion at the ninth hole, rebounding from a bogey at the par-four eighth to grab his third birdie in four holes with a magnificent 55ft putt that delighted his band of followers from just up the road in Dungarvan.
The road Hurley will drive back down to Fota today to prepare for his third round having stayed at home for the week.
“It will sink in when I get home,” Hurley said. “It’s just been unreal: such a good week, such a good golf course, such good weather, such a good field! There are some great players playing and I’m just delighted to make the cut and do as well as I have. I’m so happy.”
Much to celebrate, then, but someone still has to reel in Ilonen, who will be relatively pressure-free this weekend as the focus turns on the Irish.
“It’s fantastic that Graeme has played so well and he’s up there,” Ilonen said. “Obviously for the home crowds it’s very important. It’s very important to the Irish players and it’s good to go maybe head-to-head with some of them on Sunday.
“The pressure, I think it’s on the locals.”