IRELAND’S hopes of keeping the 3 Irish Open title at home for the third time in four years remain extremely bright at the halfway stage of the €3 million tournament at Killarney.
Leading the way, five behind pacesetter Ross Fisher, are Rory McIlroy, Michael Hoey and Pádraig Harrington, all seven under, while Darren Clarke’s encouraging form of recent times sees him remain in the hunt one shot further back alongside Paul McGinley.
Four more of the original 27 home starters, Damien McGrane, five under; Shane Lowry, three under, and Graeme McDowell and Irish PGA Region member Barrie Traynor, level par, are through to the weekend action.
McIlroy has kept himself nicely in touch with the pace even though he has yet to produce the kind of magic that has seen him shoot rounds of 62 and 63 already this year at Quail Hollow and St Andrews. As Fisher proved yesterday, the Killeen Course is there for the taking in the current calm conditions and holding greens and McIlroy looks ready to explode. He certainly can improve still further on rounds of 67 and 68 but will have to eradicate the kind of slackness that cost him bogeys yesterday at the 8th, 11th and 17th.
“I played nicely in parts but there were just a few too many mistakes,” he admitted. “I’ll have to limit those for the weekend because I feel as if I’m playing well enough to really challenge. It was frustrating to be honest. It seemed that every time I made a birdie, I made a bogey and it halted me in my tracks. I’m only five back and if I get off to a fast start, hopefully I can close the gap on Ross a little bit.
“There’s only one player between us and a lot of players also on seven under. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few guys get off to a good start tomorrow ahead of Ross and he could come back a little. But then again, he showed at the European Open a couple of years ago that he can run away with championships as he did when winning the European Open by seven shots. It all really depends on what he does.
“I knew a low score was on out there. I set myself a target of 10 under just to see if I could get somewhere around that. That would have been a good day’s work and I had a chance to do that when I got to eight under after 16 but the bogey at 17 didn’t help.”
McIlroy is an unbelievable favourite with the crowd and has been receiving such support out there that he enthused: “It’s fantastic. Every time we come home to the Irish Open, the support we get is incredible. And we’ll need as much of it as possible for the next two days to try and lift the trophy.”
Darren Clarke seems to have found a new kind of resolve. There was a time when he might have lost his composure after the stroke of bad luck he suffered at the very first hole.
“I flushed my tee shot over the corner and hit the single tree there and finished right behind it,” he lamented. “I had to chip out sideways and made a bogey and that set the tone. I lost the pace of the greens but battled on and it was nice to make three on the last having found a fairway bunker off the tee.”
Clarke lauded Ross Fisher for his course record 61 but also pointed out that “there are still 36 holes to go and there’s a bunch of players trying to catch him. I’ll just go out and hopefully get a little bit of momentum back again”.
He couldn’t be happier with the course or the way the tournament has gone and recommended that nothing extreme should be done to try and toughen things up for the final two rounds. “They should just let the course play the way it and let the guys play,” he urged.
“So many spectators are coming in to watch and they’ve seen Ross Fisher shoot 61. That’s brilliant and it doesn’t happen too often... just keep the course the way they have done. It’s fantastic what they have done so far.”
Paul McGinley mixed the brilliant with the not so good on his way to a 68 and six under par. He visited the water hazard at the 8th to run up a double bogey and also dropped shots at the 5th and 14th. But he compensated with gains at the 2nd, 6th, 7th and 9th on the way out and later at the 12th, 15th and 16th.
Graeme McDowell had to roll in an 18-foot birdie putt on the final green to ensure his participation in the weekend activities.
Irish qualifiers: 7 under: Harrington, McIlroy, Hoey. 6 under: Clarke, McGinley. 5 under: McGrane. 3 under: Lowry. Level: McDowell, Trainor.
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