Rory McIlroy right where he needs to be to challenge for second Irish Open title

A third-round 66 leaves the Northern Irish golfer just two behind leader Hurly Long at The K Club

Rory McIlroy walks to the ninth tee during the third round of the Horizon Irish Open at The K Club. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho

On moving day, the furniture could be heard shifting. And nobody moved as noisily as Rory McIlroy in the third round of the Horizon Irish Open at The K Club. And if he had to play most of his round without his three-wood which was damaged on the sixth after he brushed it against a tee marker, the loud roars which met each of his seven birdies was spine-tingling to all.

The simple mathematics of accumulating all strokes through 54 holes placed Germany’s Hurly Long atop the leaderboard, after he posted a 70 for a total of 13-under-par 203. It gave him a one-stroke lead over England’s Jordan Smith.

The truth of it is different, though. Very different, for the major presence – as evidenced by the huge crowds who packed the hillocks and grandstands – was that of McIlroy, as the Northern Irishman sprinkled his magic dust to enchant and enthral.

McIlroy’s 66 for 205 sees him in solo third, just two shots adrift of a pacesetter who has yet to win on the DP World Tour, as moving day saw all of the cards fall the way of the world number two. That the two men ahead of him will not even need to look over their shoulders, because McIlroy’s presence will be very much with them up close and personal in the final group of the final round.

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On yet another sunny day, ideal conditions for sure, the scoring generally didn’t match that of the opening two rounds. Trickier pin placements had a lot to do with that, reflected in the fact that there were only two eagles – one on the fourth hole by Billy Horschel, the second on the 16th by Richard Mansell – while the overnight leaders struggled and gave hope to all others.

Smith’s 73 managed to keep him in close proximity to Long, but Shubhankar Sharma struggled to a 75 to drop down into a group of six players in tied-fourth.

Rory McIlroy brings the noise as he roars up the Irish Open leaderboard with 66Opens in new window ]

McIlroy’s brilliant round – despite a bogey on the 16th where he put his approach into the river – enabled him to leapfrog his way up the leaderboard. For Shane Lowry, there was an air of frustration about him after only managed a 72 to remain on eight under, his total of 208 leaving him in tied-13th.

“I need go out there tomorrow and shoot a low front nine and get myself back in the tournament. Hopefully that’s my bad day out of the way and I can go out and shoot a low number tomorrow.

“We all thought the leading score was going to be a lot 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,” said Lowry.

Lowry, for sure, is not too far adrift at all and can head into the final round aware that he could add a second Irish Open to the one he claimed as an amateur at Baltray in 2009.

“I am obviously five back of the leader and three back of Rory so that’s my first instinct is to look at that and that’s what I am thinking. I will be out about an hour or so before the leaders and if I can get out and make a few birdies early on and give them something to think about that will be great,” said Lowry.

There are many who will have a similar philosophy, with 26 players within six shots of Long’s lead.

Leader Hurly Long of Germany plays his second shot on the 18th hole during the third round. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

One of those is Mark Power, the 23-year-old Kilkenny golfer in his very first professional tournament. Power added a third round 70 to sit on seven-under-par 209 – in tied-21st – and with the opportunity to make his sponsor’s invite pay huge dividends.

“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,” said Power.

Tom McKibbin, the European Open champion, signed for a 70 for four-under-par 212 (tied-44th) while Conor Purcell – like Power playing on a sponsor’s invitation – shot a 71 for 213 (tied-54th).

Purcell is currently having a decent season on the Challenge Tour but felt that playing and competing here has given him more “self-belief, knowing I can live with the lads out here”.

“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.”

For Long, the final round is potentially a career changer.

The 28-year-old German – 150th on the Race to Dubai order of merit and 252nd on the world rankings and without a top-10 this season – has yet to win on tour, and claimed: “It’s exciting. Last year at The Belfry [in the British Masters], I was leading after two rounds, and there were ginormous crowds out there as well.

“I know I can take something from that. I’ve got a good attitude. I know it’s going to be way more difficult tomorrow than it was even today, but you can feed off of that just as well. So just looking forward to it either way.”

As for McIlroy? Does he think his presence will be intimidating in the final round of an Irish Open with the crowd living and dying with every shot?

“I certainly don’t see myself as an intimidating character. I think the only way that I could have my presence be felt is if I’m actually playing with someone and they’re looking at me hitting the shots and holing the putt.

“It maybe affects something in that way, but I don’t think so. The thing is, every time I get myself in contention, I don’t feel like I have to play my absolute best to get into contention. But then whenever I am in contention, I’m playing against guys that are playing at their best. When you have confidence and you’re playing your best, for any golfer, I don’t think it matters whose names is on the leaderboard.”

All to play for, for sure. And have no doubt about it, McIlroy’s name – and presence – looms larger than anyone’s.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times