Having opened a five-shot lead midway through his second round yesterday, Harrington finished with a two-over-par 73 but will start today’s third round still right in contention in a tie for second with Luke Donald at two under par, just one stroke behind a six-way tie for the halfway lead.
Late-starting Tyrrell Hatton eagled the first hole and birdied the last to bookend the round of the day, a five-under-par 66. It was the lowest competitive score at Royal County Down for 76 years, equalling the great Jimmy Bruen’s six-under 66 at the 1939 Irish Open.
That put Hatton, 23, into a share of the 36-hole lead on three under alongside fellow Englishman and playing partner Chris Wood (69), Soren Kjeldsen of Denmark (70), Scotsman Richie Ramsay (67), Bernd Wiesberger of Austria (67) and Spain’s Rafael Cabrera-Bello (68).
It leaves the European Tour event finely poised, albeit minus tournament host Rory McIlroy, who sped away from Royal County Down after his level-par 71 did not prove good enough to avoid a third consecutive missed cut in his national Open. The world No.1 paid for his opening 80 to miss out on the weekend’s play by four shots.
Yet with England’s Matt Ford on one under par, there are nine players within two shots of the lead, representing the only men still under par at midpoint after a second exacting day by the Irish Sea. Players champion Rickie Fowler shot a 71 to match his playing partner McIlroy but will be among the starters having reached halfway at level par.
Harrington, the 2007 Irish Open champion, had been in cruise control 10 holes into yesterday’s round, six under par for the week and standing over a 10-feet eagle putt as his rivals among the morning starters struggled with another blustery day on this tough links made even tougher by bouts of heavy rain at regular periods throughout the day.
Harrington had earlier in his round, which started at the 10th, opened a five-shot lead as birdies at the 16th and 17th were embellished by his overnight co-leader Max Kieffer double-bogeying his third hole.
Kieffer would close with a 76 that sent him to one over for the week but all was well in the Dubliner’s world as he stood over an eagle putt at the par-five first, his 10th, with a chance to move to eight under par. The chance went and though he walked off with a birdie, Wiesberger had eagled the 18th to get to four under and the clear daylight advantage Harrington had been looking forward to protecting over the final two rounds began to disappear.
A bogey five at the second, double bogey at the par-four third and bogey four at the fourth followed by a bogey-bogey finish left the three-time major champion with a one-over-par 73, back amongst his rivals and preparing for a different type of contest than the one he had wished for after round one when he said he want to separate himself from the pack.
“I am pleased to be in contention,” Harrington said. “Clearly I would have preferred to be that seven, eight under par-type thing where I would be in a good position to move away from the field on the weekend.
“I’m now in a position that I’m going to have to play well on the weekend and not get anything going against me. There will be a lot of people just making the cut this weekend that will feel like they have a chance of winning now that I’ve come back to the pack in some way.
“It’s going to be a much tougher weekend. I won’t have the luxury of having any bad runs, let’s say. I’ll have to stick in there and play well and hope things actually go in my favour.” Harrington felt he had used up his allocation of bad luck for the week with his back to back three-putts at the third and fourth holes followed by his bogey-bogey finish at the eighth and ninth.
“I was very comfortable through 28 holes, putt there to go eight under par and everything was easy at that stage. Yeah, it was disappointing I suppose.
“What I went through over the last six or seven holes is what most of the players are going through all the time, so I feel bad, but as I said, it seems to be the way that most of the course is playing for most of the guys.