Graeme McDowell hopes it will be 13th time lucky in the Irish Open this weekend as Rory McIlroy made an early exit from the event for the second year in succession.
McDowell carded a second round of 66 to lie just two shots off the halfway lead held by Finland’s Mikko Ilonen – who added a 68 to his opening course-record 64 - but Ryder Cup team-mate McIlroy could only manage an erratic 69 to miss the cut by a shot on one over.
“It’s very frustrating,” said the former world number one, who won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth last month. “To make six birdies and an eagle and shoot just two under means there were a lot of mistakes and wasteful shots.
“To miss the cut for the second year in a row is not a nice position to be in. I don’t know what else to say, it’s very disappointing.”
McIlroy needed to finish birdie-eagle to qualify for the weekend and although he duly holed from long range on the 17th and hit a brilliant escape from the trees on the last, he was unable to chip in from the front of the green.
“I’m proud of myself how I fought out there and didn’t give up and tried for the last shot,” added McIlroy after his first missed cut on the European Tour in 2014. “I gave myself a chance to try to make the cut with the big birdie putt on 17, but just wasn’t meant to be.
“I just need to tighten it all up and become a lot more consistent, make the bad shots a little bit better and not be as wasteful around the greens. If I can do that, I know my game is right there. I’ve got a couple weeks off now to work on my game a little bit, play some links golf and get ready for the Scottish Open and the Open.”
McDowell made his tournament debut when Fota Island last hosted the event in 2002 and finished 27th, but that was one of just six halfway cuts the former US Open champion has made in 12 appearances.
The 34-year-old has never recorded a top-10 finish but carded six birdies and one bogey to join 2009 runner-up Robert Rock and France’s Romain Wattel on eight under par.
“There’s always a first time for everything,” McDowell joked. “I’ve been unhappy with my game now for a few months, really getting frustrated with myself in general and trying to be a little too perfect. I tried to loosen myself up a little bit and try to enjoy my golf a little bit. I’m surprised and excited to be in contention.
“Normally there’s some pressure and expectation in the Irish Open. I think maybe coming off the US Open last week, with as much pressure and frustration and expectation as you feel there, perhaps that’s why I’m dealing with it a little bit better because it nearly feels like the proverbial walk in the park by comparison.
“This is a fun game to play. We are very lucky to play it for a living but last week bordered on the unenjoyable because the golf course was so frustratingly difficult.
“I’ve played in front of many big crowds before, but maybe none as passionate here as the Irish crowd. There’s nothing quite like it when a crowd is pulling for you and it’s a fun experience. It’s something I’ve never experienced before, except perhaps at a Ryder Cup.”
Rock lost a play-off to Shane Lowry at County Louth in 2009 but claimed the first prize of 500,000 euro as Lowry was still an amateur, while he also finished fifth in 2006 and second to Paul Casey last year.
“It’s a tournament I like playing but I think it’s more the time of year,” Rock said. “I enjoy the tournaments at the start of the year (he held off Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy to win in Abu Dhabi in 2012) but when we travel further afield I don’t play well and it batters your confidence.
“It takes time to rebuild that and it seems to be this time of year it comes back.”
Italian Marco Crespi and English duo Simon Khan and Matthew Nixon were three off the pace on seven under, Nixon coming home in 31 to card a 65, the joint lowest score of the day.
“I made a nice birdie on the first and then hit it straight in the water on the next,” said Nixon, who was fourth in the NH Collection Open earlier this season. “I made double there and I thought this could be a long round of golf. I made some nice swings after that and for once my putts all went in.”
Nixon’s second shot to the par-four sixth also went in from 93 yards, just moments after playing partner Mark Staunton had done the same from 120. “I’ve never seen that happen. It was quite nice,” Nixon added.
Three-time major winner Padraig Harrington was a shot further back after a 67, while English teenager Matt Fitzpatrick made the cut in his first event as a professional on one under after a 69.