Shane Lowry survived alate-round wobble and some high-volume commentary from a giant TV screen to put himself in pole position at the halfway stage of The 148th Open as Rory McIlroy’s late charge to the make the cut came up agonisingly short.
It was a day of highemotions at a soggy Royal Portrush, both Irishmen roared on by a passionate home, sell-out crowd, Lowry shot a four-under-par 67 to take a share of the 36-hole lead with American J.B. Holmes at eight under par while McIlroy’s magnificent, gutsy 65 was one shot too many, the world number three paying the price for his opening 79 and missing the cut by one.
But it was some effort, 14 strokes better than hisThursday debacle, bogey free and laced with glorious iron play and solid putting but oh how McIlroy will regret that missed tap-in for bogey at the 16th in the first round.
That needless extra shot, borne of an “inexcusable” lapse in concentration, made all the difference and it left the 30-year-old fighting back the tears, his voice wavering.
“It’s going to hurt for a little bit but the good thing is I’ve got a tournament to play in next week,” McIlroy said. “This has been a week I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. I didn’t play my part but everyone who came out to watch played theirs.”
McIlroy may have provided the late-evening fireworks with his back nine of 31 but the day belonged to Lowry, two years on from the trauma of his missed opportunity at the US Open, when on the brink of victory at Oakmont he let slip a four-shot 54-hole lead and shot a last-round 76 to fall into a share of second place.
The Offaly man bested his previous low major score for the first 36 holes, seven under at the 2018 PGA Championship, by getting off to a perfect start with three consecutive birdies, and moved into the lead at nine under thanks to a sublime approach shot at the eighth for a birdie from three foot.
At 10 there was another, with a longer putt down the hill that produced a spine-tingling roar, only for the free-wheeling Lowry to start tightening up.
There was a three-putt bogey on 14 and he needed some excellent par saves at the 15th and 17th in particular with his excellent short game, the latter after he was distracted on the tee.
“There’s a little tented village with a TV screen about 80 yards from the tee box, and I could hear (NBC’s) Jay Townsend commenting on my shot. Just on my backswing, he said, ‘he’s got 295 to the top of the hill’. Yeah, that put me off. But I got lucky, I got a great break and managed to make par.”
Lowry also duffed his second shot at the last, eventually taking the bogey that sent him back to eight under and into a tie for the lead with Holmes, who followed his opening 66 with a 68 but Ireland’s world number 33 was happy with his day’s work, delighted with the support he is getting and confident for the final two rounds.
“I’ve won big tournaments before, and I’ve shot some good scores and I’m in a familiar place,” Lowry said. “I know the surroundings. I feel pretty comfortable here this week. I feel like I can go out there.
“Look, I might go out there and shoot two 67s at the weekend. If JB Holmes shoots 67, 66 he beats me. That’s the way it is. Look, I’ve just got to go out and do my best, and if that is good enough at the end of the day, we’ll have a good night Sunday.”
He will certainly have the backing of his fellow Irish pros. Calling Lowry “one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met”, GraemeMcDowell said of his friend: “I certainly wouldn’t put it past him to put his name on that trophy. I’d be very proud of him.
Pádraig Harrington said last night that the mental scar tissue Lowry carries from his Oakmont failure in 2016, can help his friend though the man himself insisted Oakmont was no longer an issue, either way.
“Oakmont was so long ago and I was a lot younger,” Lowry said.
I feel like if I get the opportunity this week I’ll be better. I don’t think -- what am I trying to say? I’m trying to say it definitely won’t affect me what happened in Oakmont. I’ve got over that. It took a while but I got over it.
“Look I’m just out here on the Tour trying to compete as best I can. This week it’s pretty good, so hopefully I can just continue on over the next couple of days and see where it leaves me.” The last two Irishmen to share a halfway lead in The Open were Darren Clarke in 2011 and Rory McIlroy in 2014. Both went on to lift the Claret Jug, which bodes well for Lowry, but both missed the cut yesterday.
McIlroy needed to come home from the turn in 30 to be sure of making the cut at one over par and he got off to a great start with birdies at the 10th, 11th and 12th, the second in that sequence delivered by a brilliant sand wedge from 118 yards in.
A bogey at the par-three 13th halted the momentum but birdies at 14 and 16 brought fresh hope. When his 10-footer dropped for a crucial birdie at Calamity, McIlroy rewarded himself with a steely punch of the air, close to his chest, epitomising the determination that had taken him from Thursday’s despair to the cusp of the cutline. He needed another birdie at least. Perhaps he pushed too hard but they would not drop.
This 148th Open Championship is delicately poised but not for Tiger Woods, struggling with a bad back, or Phil Mickelson, the first time these greats, with 20 majors between them, had missed the same cut in a major in 83 starts. And neither forMcIlroy.