Relaxed Rory McIlroy must now move through the gears

Rory McIlroy has completed the first half of his Dubai Duty Free Irish Open objective by making a first cut in four years, but now he has to find a way to convert his recent good form and deliver a first victory of 2016.

The world number three, without a win since last November’s European Tour DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, feels he has been knocking on the door for much of this season with seven top-10 finishes and a tie for 12th at last weekend’s Players Championship.

Yesterday at the K Club, McIlroy was far from in the groove as he shot a second-round 70 featuring five birdies and three bogeys. Yet he trails Masters champion Danny Willett and Scotland’s Marc Warren by only a shot heading into today’s third round and having avoided a fourth straight Irish Open missed cut, the question remains whether he can now move through the gears and secure the win he feels is just a short distance away.

“I feel like it’s been good, it’s been quite solid, the last couple of days, but there’s definitely more in there,” McIlroy said. “Whether I get to show that this week, depending on what the conditions are like, it might be a bit of a grind out there, but I feel like my game’s in good shape. There’s something waiting there to click, and when it does, I could be off and running and it could be the catapult and momentum I need to have another great summer. Hopefully that is the case, but my game’s in good shape.

“The weather doesn’t look too good over the weekend so you’re going to have to battle, not just the golf course and myself but also the conditions.

“I’m going to stay as patient as I can. I feel I’ve had a good look at the golf course for two days and I feel confident on it, so there’s no reason why I can’t go out there over the next two days and make the same amount of birdies, and just, limit the mistakes.

“I hit a lot of good iron shots, good wedge shots. It’s just whenever I missed a couple of greens I didn’t get it up and down. There’s a couple of soft bogeys in there... but I know I’m making enough birdies to win this tournament.”

An early start yesterday ensured not only the tournament host had plenty of time to get to the RDS to see Ulster take on Leinster in the Pro12 semi-final last night but that he and fellow front runners Warren and Willett avoided the worst of the weather, yesterday’s afternoon starters having to play in persistent rain for the second day in a row having been deluged on Thursday morning.

At least the crowds were bigger yesterday, up by around 5,000 from the first round to 17,628. They saw neither McIlroy nor Willett take the tournament by the scruff of the neck but instead joined in the chase by Warren, whose six-under 66 equalled the round of the day.

The Glaswegian’s form coming to the K Club did not suggest a 66 was arriving with him but Warren was not complaining. Willett, too, has every reason to relish the final two rounds, with thoughts turning to a Sunday showdown the Irish golfing public would relish, head to head between the Masters champion and McIlroy.

“It would be good fun regardless who you’re up against,” Willett said. “Warren is a fantastic player, and Rory is there, as well. If I can be somewhere there or thereabouts come Sunday, that would be great.”

McIlroy is two shots clear of England’s Matthew Southgate and three ahead of another Englishman Tyrrell Hatton and South African duo Richard Sterne and Jaco van Zyl. But he clearly has Willett in his sights, and not just in terms of the Irish Open title up for grabs. The Yorkshireman leads the race To Dubai standings, 1.4 million points ahead of the fourth-placed Irishman.

“I don’t think I need any extra incentive,” the Holywood star said. “We had a great battle for the Race To Dubai last year. I want to beat him to that again this year and he’s obviously got a big lead on me. I need to take advantage of tournaments like this which are big enough prize funds. There’s incentive enough there, no matter if he’s the Masters champion or not. I need to go out there and play a good weekend to try and catch up on him.” Let battle commence.

McIlroy leads an eight-strong Irish contingent into the weekend with Gavin Moynihan, Graeme McDowell and Paul McGinley on one under, Darren Clarke and Gary Hurley at level par, and Paul Dunne and Kevin Phelan at one over. Last in the door was a mightily relieved Shane Lowry.

The 2009 Irish Open champion spent the afternoon flirting with the cutline in the worst of the conditions. Starting the day at one under, he was two over playing the par-five last with the projected cutline at three over and saw his ball pitch into the greenside lake. Taking a penalty drop, Lowry’s chip still left a difficult par putt to remain inside the line and he pulled it out of the hat, the relief etched across his face before he chest-bumped playing partner and fellow escapee Bernd Wiesberger.

“It was pure relief. I’m very happy to be around for the weekend,” Lowry said. “If you look at it, I don’t know, I think four under might be inside the Top-10. I’m only six shots off that. If I can post something in the mid 60s, maybe I can be up there inside the Top-10 before the leaders tee off.”

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