By Brian Keogh
Christy O'Connor Jnr needs a miracle to win the €330,000 AIB Irish Seniors Open after crashing to a horrible 76 at Adare Manor.
O'Connor double bogeyed the first and the 18th and took 37 putts on his way to his worst score on the European Seniors Tour since the 1999 Senior British Open at Royal Portrush.
O'Connor groaned: "My putting was horrific, the worst I've ever putted in my life. I had just one single putt and even though I had 14 birdie putts in a row, I never made one."
The Galwayman bounced back at Portrush to win the title four years ago, but yesterday's disaster leaves him a massive eight shots behind the leaders.
Americans Gary Wintz and Jeff Van Wagenen, and Jamaica's Delroy Cambridge all shot four under par 68s to lead by a shot from Australians David Good, Noel Ratcliffe and Brian Jones.
Cork's Denis O'Sullivan failed to make even one birdie in a miserable 75 as Ulster's Paul Leonard carded a 71 to lead the Irish challenge on one under par.
O'Connor never gave himself a chance to get going when he ran up a double bogey six at the 392 yard opening hole.
He said: "I hit my drive left and it was lying badly and I had to stand in the bunker to get a stance. I tried to hit a five wood over the river and hit it in the water."
Despite getting back to level with birdies at the fourth and the tenth, the wheels came off on the back nine with back to back bogeys at the 15th and the par-three 16th.
O'Connor explained: "I played probably the best golf of my life to the 16th hole. I can't say I have ever hit the ball any better. I middled it every time.
"But on the 15th I pitched to four feet and missed for par. Then on the 16th I hit a perfect tee shot over the flag and ended up on the down slope of the bunker and had no shot."
Back to two over for his round, O'Connor pulled his tee shot onto the bank on the river at the par five 18th, duffed a left handed recovery and ran up a seven without finding the water at any stage.
"It's the best I've played in 20 years from tee to green. I just middled it every fairway from the second on but couldn't buy a putt," he said.
But it was a very different story for 58 year old Leonard who made two birdies and just one bogey in a solid 71 that leaves him in a tie for 12th.
"I was a bit apprehensive last night and before going out but I'm delighted with that," Leonard said. "I might be the leading Irishman now but it would be more significant to be the leading Irishman on Sunday night."
Wintz, 54, is just back after three weeks off following a triple hernia operation.
But he felt no ill effects yesterday as he hit six birides in his 68, including hat trick from the 12th.
Cambridge, who won three times last year, matched Wintz's 68 thanks mainly to an eagle three at the ninth where he blasted a 241 yard five wood to just 10 feet.
Van Wagenen, meanwhile, was out in one over par but picked up an eagle three at the 12th - just one of six threes on his card in the last eight holes of a five under par back nine of 31.
Defending champion Seiji Ebihara had five birdies in a two under par 70 that leaves him well in the hunt for his third AIB Irish Seniors Open title on the trot.
Liam Higgins and Joe McDermott are the next best of the Irish on one over par, five shots off the lead.