Francesco Molinari still leads at Wentworth as Rory McIlroy heads for home

Disappointing display from world number one as a 78 sees him miss the weekend cut

 Rory McIlroy shows his frustration on the 16th hole during day two of the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. The Irishman posted a 78 and missed the cut.  Photo:  Warren Little/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy shows his frustration on the 16th hole during day two of the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. The Irishman posted a 78 and missed the cut. Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images

 

The poster boy of the sport departed, the only reminder of his presence being a giant photo image behind the 18th green grandstand. And, as Rory McIlroy left others behind to fight it out for the BMW PGA Championship title, Italian Francesco Molinari – a rather unlikely stand-in – assumed the task of filling the void. He had been handed an invidious assignment, of filling shoes nobody quite can these days.

If McIlroy’s parting only made his victory of a year ago seem all the more implausible given his history with the West Course, where he has now missed the cut in three of his last four visits, his absence – in its own way – has made the job of succession all the easier to accomplish. With no swashbuckling McIlroy, and with his intimidating presence on the leaderboard missing, those in contention will at least be able to focus on their own work.

Molinari, the first round leader, stubbornly kept to his task in adding a second round 69 to a 65 to reach the midway point on 134, 10-under-par. That created a one-stroke cushion over his nearest pursuer Byeong Hun An of South Korea, who fired a best-of-the-day 64 to move through the field. Argentina’s Emiliano Grillo and Thailand’s Thonghchai Jaidee were a shot further back, on 136.

Tough nut

Only Grillo managed to replicate something of the old roars, his five-wood approach from 255 yards nestling a matter of inches from the cup to enable him the simplest of tap-ins for an eagle. It gave the Argentine a round of 65 – which also included another eagle, on the 12th, on his run home – and perhaps the prospect of a maiden tour win.

“You’ve got to take it slow,” said Grillo, almost afraid to let his mind race ahead of him.

As McIlroy endured his travails, others dug deep to survive the midway cut. Ernie Els, who redesigned the course and endured brickbats and bitching from his fellow pros, let his actions speak louder than words with a birdie-birdie finish to make the cut on the mark. Likewise, Lee Westwood rolled up his sleeves to also finish with two closing birdies to make it without any room to spare.

McIlroy was out of sorts, a far cry from the player who has dominated the game in the past month. The authority which reaped titles at the WGC-Cadillac Matchplay and the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow was gone, as mental fatigue crept in. His shot-making was loose. It included a double-bogey six on the 11th where he was forced to reload after pulling his tee-shot left into the trees.

Nine greens

McIlroy’s departure will at least give him a couple of extra days’ rest ahead of hosting the Irish Open at Royal County Down next week. “I’d still rather be here but it’s not all bad getting to go home for the weekend,” he reasoned .

Molinari – a three-time winner on the European Tour, his biggest win coming in the 2010 WGC-HSBC Champions tournament in China – has spent this season juggling a commitment to also play on the PGA Tour. It seems to have helped his development.

“It was a good idea to go over there and challenge myself and to get better,” he said.

If he were to look for any inspiration to claim the title, he already has it. “There’s a bit of good Italian karma here, with (Costantino) Rocca winning and Matteo (Mannaserro) winning a few years ago . . . . I know how hard I have been working the last few months, so it’s nice that it’s paying off.”

Molinari may not have to keep an eye on McIlroy over the weekend, but the pursuers are a cosmopolitan lot with a Korean, an Argentine, a Thai, a number of Englishmen, Spaniards, a Swede, a Dutchman and an Irishman among them.

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