The king is dead. Long live the king.
Well not quite, but with Rory McIlroy missing the cut and Graeme McDowell following quickly behind, the home crowd will be looking to veteran Pádraig Harrington to lead the chase of leaders Benjamin Herbert and Daniel Im at tight and tricky Portstewart.
While Paul Dunne leads the Irish challenge, just five shots off the pace on eight under par after his 69, Harrington is one stroke further back and hopeful he can find some weekend inspiration and fire a pair of 65s to give the pace-setters a fright.
With exactly 65 players making the cut at four-under par — bad news for Waterville’s David Higgins after his 72 left him on three-under — just nine strokes cover the entire field with only five of the 17 Irish making the cut.
Harrington believes the leaders will continue to go low on a course that is yielding birdies galore. But he’s also confident he has the game to go deep himself, providing he gets some breaks.
“Six shots is a lot to make up but I like where my game is at,” Harrington said after looking mystified at the 18th where his 3.5-footer for birdie slipped past the edge of the hole.
“If I continue to play the same way I played the first two days, and just get a bit of momentum and a few breaks, I’ll turn those 68, 69s into 65s.
“There’s a good score out there but the leaders are going to shoot good scores too so you are pretty much guaranteed it’s going to go into the 20s under par unless the weather’s bad.
“Could I shoot a 61 or 62? Yes, but I’ll need the breaks. Would I have liked to be closer to the leaders? Yeah, three-and-a-half feet there at the 18th.”
Frenchman Herbert and American Im shot 67s to lead by a stroke on 13 under par from the fiery Spanish sensation Jon Rahm, who carded a 67 alongside McIlroy and Hideki Matsuyama (tied eighth on nine under after a 68) to keep alive his dream of joining the list of Spanish winners of the title.
“If I was able to join them, it would be absolutely amazing,” Rahm said of the possibility of joining Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal, and Sergio Garcia in the pantheon of Irish Open champions.
“But like I said yesterday, there’s still a tonne of golf to be played and hopefully I keep playing the same level I’ve been playing.”
Rahm has been eating “T-bone steak, rare” every night this week and Harrington knows the Basque beast has the game to eat Portstewart for breakfast.
English pair Oliver Fisher (68) and Matthew Southgate (68) and Kiwi Ryan Fox (66) are two behind on 11 under but with players of the quality of Justin Rose (70) and Tommy Fleetwood (67) just six behind alongside Harrington, there’s still time for one of the leading lights to make a charge.
Shane Lowry certainly needs something special to get back into the mix after he undid all his good work with a bogey-bogey finish.
Tied for 45th on five-under after a 71, Lowry said: “I hit the ball well and then got a bit sloppy coming in. I’m very disappointed to bogey the last two.
“I had 90 yards to the flag on 17 and made bogey, which was really disappointing. Then I hit a ripper of a drive down 18 — couldn’t have got it any further down — and I just hit a really poor iron shot. But that’s the way it goes. It is hard to talk about it five minutes after doing it.
“But I am in for the week-end and hopefully the weather is going to be all right in the morning, and I can get out and make a few birdies.
“I will be looking to get to 10 under — certainly into double figures tomorrow. There’s a lot of good golf in there.
“I really feel good on the greens and feel like I am driving the ball well. So there is no reason why I can’t go out and shoot a good score tomorrow.”
McDowell had an up and down day, but was five under for the tournament with four holes to go before he bogeyed the 15th and then drove into a bunker at the last, eventually running up a double-bogey six. It all added up to a 75 which left him two shots outside the eventual cut on two-under.
To add insult to injury, after dropping four shots in the last four holes two weeks running to miss the cut, he provoked the ire of a Twitter troll, who complained that he hadn’t shouted “Fore” after an errant drive.
“Why can’t these players shout fore! Person clearly hurt by @Graeme_McDowell who didn’t seem to care!” the tweet ran.
McDowell was in no mood to take it and immediately fired back: “I’m very conscious of shouting Fore. Ball flew 20 yards further than I expected and I certainly did care. Hope your perfect world is great.”
Harrington felt for McDowell and McIlroy after they missed the cut on their home patch but urged them not to beat themselves up.
After hearing McDowell left without saying a word, Harrington said: “That just shows how hard G-Mac was trying. It’s his home town. Rory is the same. In Rory’s case he takes on a huge amount [as host] and if you were choosing a course for Rory to play on, this would not be the one.
“A short, straight hitter and a good wedge player is going to do very well. Even if you have the power and the control, it is no guarantee that things are going to happen for you.
“You have to suck it up and be patient and understand that the same golf missing the cut this week could win the tournament next week.”
Michael Hoey birdied the 18th early in the day, only half-believing he needed to get to four under to make the cut. As it turned out, he was spot on as his 72 left him on four-under. “These guys are good,” said Harrington.
Higgins bogeyed the 18th for a 72 to miss out by one stroke with Ballymena’s Dermot McElroy (74) and Neil O’Briain’s (72) four shots off the mark on level par.
West Waterford’s Gary Hurley also had a bad day, limping home in 40 for a 76 that left him one one-over, while Ryder Cup skippers Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley ended up second last on eight over.
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