Rory McIlroy admits he felt out of contention at the halfway stage but is now chomping at the bit to try and win his second Horizon Irish Open after moving to within two shots of Hurly Long at the K Club.
McIlroy (-11) teed off eight shots behind overnight leaders Shubhankar Sharma and Jordan Smith but a back nine rally, coupled with the final groups stalling saw him muscle his way into third place with a well executed 66 which puts him in the final group on Sunday with Long (-13) and Smith (-12).
“Yeah, it’s really exciting. Last night, I thought I was maybe a little bit too far behind and out of it but I’ve played a really good round of golf today to get myself back in it. Excited to have another opportunity tomorrow,” said the 2016 Irish Open champion and defending course champion who will look to draw on memories from seven years ago.
“It’s hard to try to win your own National Open and try to get over the line. It’s hard. It’s hard to do. I was in fortunate enough to do it a few years ago here and having those memories is going to be nice, and also having the support of the crowd out there as well is going to be incredibly helpful tomorrow.
After his second round, McIlroy spoke of trying to build his score from the fairway after an erratic opening 36 holes and he did just that. Despite breaking his 3-wood on the sixth tee he combined five-wood with driver to create opportunities from the fairway and it yielded seven birdies and the most dramatic of bogeys on the par-5 16th after finding the water with his second and almost with his fourth. A fortunate kiss off the rocks, sparing his blushes and a potentially disastrous score. He did bounce back with birdies on 17 and 18.
“Much better. I knew I needed to put the ball in the fairway a bit more off the tee which I did for the most part, and I played the par 5s well, apart from 16, and just gave myself plenty of looks. Held some nice putts on the back nine and really pleased to bounce back on 17 and 18 with two birdies after the bogey on 16.”
The final three-ball of Sharma, Smith and Ross Fisher played the opening nine holes in a combined nine-over-par which blew the tournament wide open and gave hope to the chasing pack, particularly McIlroy.
“I think sort of in the middle of the back nine, for me, the guys were probably just on the 7th or 8th hole but no one had gone ahead of that leading score after the end of the second day, which was 13-under.
“So yeah, sort of once I saw that, I was frustrated to hit it in the water at 16 and give a shot back there, but as I said really happy to bounce back on 17 and 18 and finish at 11-under. I’ll probably still be three or four back heading into tomorrow if the guys play the par 5s well on the back nine but still have a great chance.”
Things didn’t quite go as well for Shane Lowry who admitted he tried too hard on the back nine after two birdies and two bogeys saw him sign for a level-par 72 which leaves him five back at eight-under-par.
The Clara man still has a chance of winning his second home open and first as a professional but with the likes of McIlroy, Ryan Fox, Min Woo Lee and Billy Horschel he has a lot of ground to make up and names to overtake.
“Yes, look, hopefully that’s my bad day out of the day and I can go out and shoot a low number tomorrow. We all thought the leading score was going to be a low more than it is and it is the same as it was this morning. Who knows what’s going to win the tournament, I just need to go out and look after myself tomorrow and hopefully at the end of the day it will be good enough.
“I probably tried too hard on the back nine today, I had some putts and I am just trying to will them in and they weren’t going in. it just gets frustrating. The crowds were amazing out there and I was just trying to do something to give them something to roar about because I didn’t give them much to roar about. Hopefully I can do that tomorrow.”
Next best of the Irish is Kilkenny’s Mark Power who continues to look in his comfort zone on his professional debut and a two-under round of 70 lifted him in into T21 on seven-under-par and at only six shots back, he knows anything is possible.
“I honestly didn’t set myself much of a goal at the start of the week, just give it everything I can and see where it leaves me. Obviously now I’ve a better idea of where I stand so I’m just going to try and keep climbing. There is no real number I have in mind, just keep climbing.”
Also making his Irish Open debut is Challenge Tour player Conor Purcell who will return to the second-tier brimming with confidence ahead of a promotion bid to the DP World Tour.
Purcell made the cut on the number and added a one-under 71 to move to three-under and a share of 55th place.
“Probably a little bit of self-belief, knowing I can live with the lads out here,” said the 26-year-old from Portmarnock. “But I think the more I keep playing out here, you just realise that everyone’s kind of very similar in their own ways. They are different tours. But no one’s really playing much different golf. Obviously, the top lads are playing really good stuff. But I think if you can compete anywhere at the moment in pro golf, you’re able to do it.”
Tom McKibbin carded his second successive 70 to lie on four-under-par while Pádraig Harrington is two shots further back after a sour finished saw him sign for a level-par 72.