Graeme McDowell ready to pounce as Mikko Ilonen leads Irish Open
Eight Irish players survive cut but Rory McIlroy misses out by one
Crowds gather around the 7th green at Fota Island yesterday to watch Padraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy and Stephen Gallacher during the second round of the Irish Open yesterday. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images.
As the poster boy of global golf departed, Rory McIlroy’s fate sealed by an overhanging tree branch which ricocheted his ball into the wilderness down by the fourth hole, there was a sense of disappointment but not any despair.
For, in truth, this Irish Open has retained sufficiently notable characters to provide sustenance to the voracious appetite of the galleries.
McIlroy, along with Shane Lowry, may be gone, both missing out by one stroke after running into tree trouble on this wonderfully manicured course at Fota Island; but the billing of those who remain is strong: Mikko Illonen, of Finland, a three-time winner on tour, claimed the 36-hole lead after a 68 for 10-under-par 132, to reach the midpoint two strokes clear of Graeme McDowell, Robert Rock and Roman Wattel.
The presence of McDowell will most likely send a shiver down Illonen’s spine, given the Northern Irishman’s propensity for getting his teeth into matters when in a battle. As Pádraig Harrington, without any hint of mischief, put it: “On the face of it, and no offence to Mikko who has won a few tournaments, I’d still put Graeme, I’m sure he’s the bookies’ favourite, as the man [to beat].”
Under beautiful sunshine, with in excess of 24,000 spectators spread around the tree-lined course, the second round produced its fair of drama. Each episode met raucous roars, and none as loud as that which greeted the successful 55-footer for birdie from amateur Gary Hurley on the ninth, his finishing hole, in the third from last grouping.
Hurley’s birdie enabled him to sign for a splendid 66 (for 138) and the golfing scholarship student at NUI Maynooth joined seven other Irish players in surviving the cut which fell at level par 142.
“It will sink in when I get home, it’s just been unreal,” said Hurley, the only player in the field able to sleep in his own bed. He is doing the daily commute from his home in Dungarvan.
The octet of Irish players comprises three Major champions, McDowell (134), Harrington (136) and Darren Clarke (140); another two with tour wins, Michael Hoey (139) and Peter Lawrie (141); a tour player seeking a maiden win, Gareth Maybin (136); a club pro, John Kelly (142), and Hurley, the sole amateur.
Biggest casualtyMcIlroy, the world number six, was the biggest casualty. In a week of feel-good factors, which started with Royal Portrush’s invitation from the R&A to rejoin the rota for the British Open and McIlroy’s declaration on the eve of the tournament that he would play for Ireland in the 2015 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the missed cut – his second in a row – was, as he described it, “frustrating”.
Having opened with a 74 on Thursday, McIlroy’s second round 69 was a mixed bag of an eagle, six birdies, a double-bogey and four bogeys. If it was hard to explain such a roller-coaster ride, the bottom line was that he had taken one too many. “Not to be here over the weekend for the second year on the bounce isn’t what I want to do when I come home to play. But I’ll be back next year and try to do better,” said McIlroy, who has played six of the last eight weeks and will take a fortnight off before resuming tournament play at the Scottish Open next month.
He may be gone, but McIlroy added his tuppence worth to the notion that the crowds, so supportive these past two days, deserved a home winner. “They are the best crowds of the year [on tour] . . . they don’t just deserve an Irish winner this year, they deserve it every year.”
Certainly, a number of Irish players have put their hands up and thrown their hats into the ring to contend. McDowell, of course. Harrington too. And Maybin, a player who has probably the most laid-back demeanour of anyone on tour. Clarke, too, has finally responded to the challenge.
“There’s a low score in me somewhere, if I can hole enough putts and give myself chances,” said Clarke.
Most eyes may be positioned on McDowell – “I’m trying to free myself up and enjoy my golf,” he said – heading into the final two rounds, but the man at the head of affairs is a Finn who knows how to get the job done.
“Two rounds of golf [left], it’s a long way from here. I’ve got to keep my head down and go one shot at a time,” said Illonen of his approach.