Irish Open: Sharma and Smith set the target but Lowry and McIlroy not giving up the chase

Low scoring was the order of the day as the players enjoyed perfect conditions at The K Club

Shane Lowry putts on the fourth green during the second round of the Horizon Irish Open at The K Club. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho

The entertainers did just that, and on the sort of glorious day stolen from other more tropical climes, those wizards used their golf clubs to conjure up a magical acts in the second round of the Horizon Irish Open, when the Palmer North Course became a theatre of audacious shotmaking and remarkably low scoring.

And as India’s Shubhankar Sharma, with a 66, and England’s Jordan Smith, with a 65, navigated their way through the trees and along the River Liffey to a scarcely credible midway total of 13-under-par 131 in feeding on the birdie fest, there were too showstopping cameos from those cast in the role of pursuers.

Shane Lowry for one. Rory McIlroy for another.

Although requiring to make up more ground on the frontrunners going into the weekend, the will and the desire is evident.


As Lowry put it, in recalling that news of Sharma’s remarkable front nine of a mere 28 strokes came to him while travelling to Straffan, “I was driving down the M50 and I’m 10 shots behind ... but, I know, there’s no finishing post [on a Friday evening].”

By the time Lowry finished birdie-birdie to sign for a second successive round of 68 for 136, that margin to Sharma and Smith had reduced to five strokes. All to play for, in effect, with the tournament only halfway done and – as evidenced by the course data showing no fewer than 28 eagles and 622 birdies in the second round – plenty of opportunities to play catch up.

While McIlroy had a crazier ride home, holing out with a gap wedge for an eagle on the 16th and then suffering a double bogey without going into the river on the 17th as he signed for a 70 for 139 to be eight shots adrift.

On a gloriously sunny day, Mark Power marked his debut as a professional by shooting a 71 to lie alongside McIlroy on 139. And both Pádraig Harrington and Tom McKibbin finished their work in the searing heat and each hung on through an eternity of an afternoon for what transpired to be a cutline of two-under 142.

And, late in the evening, the number of Irish players to survive the cut rose to six, when Conor Purcell – who showed terrific grit in rebounding from a double-bogey seven on the 16th to eagle the 18th, his ninth hole – signed for a 68 to also survive on the mark.

The virtue of patience was required by Lowry, and indeed McIlroy.

Rory McIlroy celebrates holing for an eagle on the 16th hole during the second round of the Horizon Irish Open at The K Club. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Lowry had birdied the eighth and ninth holes to turn in 32 but then hit speed bumps that slowed his progress. After five straight pars, he bogeyed the 15th – three-putting the viciously sloping green after leaving his approach on the top tier – but then his putter matched the hot weather and he rolled in a 20 footer for birdie on the 17th and finished with a grandstand finish on the 18th, very nearly holing his bunker shot and tapping in for a closing birdie.

“I’m in a lovely position going into the weekend, kind of right where you want to be. I’m happy where I’m at. I’ve a huge weekend ahead of me. I’ve obviously been very fortunate to win this tournament before but I’d love nothing more than to win it again,” said Lowry, who added that even playing in his 15th Irish Open, the weight of expectations still play on him.

“I still find it quite difficult, to be honest. The whole week I kind of struggle with, in my head more than anything. You have to get yourself mentally right. Expectations are a tough thing in sport. We’re going to see that over the next two months with the rugby team. But you just have to get out of your own way and let yourself do what you do best. I’ve done that very well over the last two days.”

McIlroy has greater ground to make up. It looked as if the eagle on the 16th would provide one of those turning points he has conjured up so often through his career. “It was a lovely pin for a wedge with that backstop, just sort of cutting it in, using the slope to bring the ball back. It’s always a bonus, a bit of luck when they go in the hole, but it was a lovely shot,” he recalled.

But, rather than provide the catalyst to kick on, instead, he got bitten at the very next hole with a double bogey from nowhere.

“I’m a few back and I certainly need a low one,” said McIlroy. “I’m certainly not afraid of it. I’d rather be a few shots closer but I need to go out in the morning and shoot a low one and put the ball in play off the tee and give myself opportunities off the fairway. If I do that and get a few putts to drop, there are low scores to be got on this golf course especially with how conditions are.”

Harrington had estimated his chances of surviving the cut at a precise 79 per cent when he finished his round and both he and McKibbin’s long few hours for confirmation proved worth it.

Purcell, in contrast, only ensured he would survive the cut – with 90 players making it to the weekend – after showing great fortitude. On the 16th, he’d hit his wedge approach to the tight right pin placement into the river and then, on 18th, ripped a drive and hit a seven-iron approach to four feet for eagle.

The Dubliner’s drama extended into his back nine and he got a break on the par-four seventh. His three-wood off the tee went right, and he thought it was destined for the water hazard only for the ball to clip a tree and dropped straight down. “I had a perfect gap,” recalled Purcell, who made the most of his fortune by hitting a seven-iron to nine feet and rolled in the birdie putt that brought him back inside the cutline.

Let the game of catch-up begin.

Third-round draw

7.15: Lorenzo-Vera, Easton, Helligkilde

7.25: Guerrier, Purcell, Figureido

7.35: Wallace, Otaegui, Wang

7.45: Du Plessis, Pulkkanen, Aphibarnrat

7.55: Huizing, Wilson, Schmid

8.05: Ferguson, Southgate, Forsstrom

8.20: Bachem, Law, Brown

8.30: Ramsay, Hoge, McKibbin

8.40: Tarrio, Harrington, Hanna

8.50: Morrison, Olesen, Wu

9.0: Pavon, Kjeldsen, Wiebe

9.10: Syme, Baldwin, Gallacher

9.25: Horschel, Lombard, Soderberg

9.35: Van Rooyen, Shinkwin, Hoshino

9.45: Clements, Dantorp, Paul

9.55: Campillo, Del Rey, Von Dellingshausen

10.05: Mansell, Rai, Fox

10.15: Valimaki, Johannessen, Donald

10.30: Waring, Cockerill, Hilliard

10.40: Meronk, McIlroy, Detry

10.50: Normann, Zanotti, De Jager

11.00: M Power, Higa, Norgaard

11.10: Lindberg, Lee, Siem

11.20: A Fitzpatrick, Larrazabal, Scrivener

11.35: Brun, Lawrence, Forrest

11.46: Langasque, Parry, Green

11.57: Elvira, Schneider, Luiten

12.08: Lowry, Jamieson, Migliozzi

12.19: Schott, Hill, Long

12.30: Fisher, Smith, Sharma

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times