Red-hot Rory McIlroy is gunning for his maiden European Tour win after scorching into contention with a six-under par 64 in the UBS Hong Kong Open.
Victory would catapult McIlroy, 19, into the world’s top 50 and next year’s Masters at Augusta. And he feel ready to finish the job after notching up a confidence-boosting five top-10s from his last seven starts.
Just two shots behind amateur rival Ollie Fisher (65), Oliver Wilson (66), South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen (62) and Chawalit Plaphol (66) of Thailand on six under, McIlroy said: “I played really nicely and I feel that I could have done a little better. I didn’t birdie any of the last five holes and I probably had four wedges in my hand and could have birdied a couple.
“But it is still a very good round and a 64 puts me right in there for the weekend. If I can shoot something similar in the mid 60s tomorrow I will be in there with a shout come Sunday.”
Tied for fourth in last week’s Singapore Open, McIlroy reckons he has the confidence to take on all comers, including his old Faldo Series and amateur rival Fisher.
He said: “I played really nicely in Singapore last week and it gives me a lot of confidence to play well in a field with players like Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott. I will try to do a little better this week and get off to a good start in the Race to Dubai.
“You just have to get used to the greens because they are so grainy. You can hit a putt on a right to left slope and it actually goes left to right with the grain. So you just have to get used to it and I am starting to learn, slowly but surely.
“Last year, this was my first event for the 2008 season and I missed the cut which wasn’t nice. So it is nice to be in there this time around and hopefully I can give it a good go at the weekend.”
Fisher, 20, beat McIlroy to the punch when he became the youngest Walker Cup player in history as a 16-year-old in 2005 and earned his tour card at the 2006 Q-School.
Both youngsters were beaten in play-offs for European Tour titles this year - Fisher to Frenchman Thomas Level at Open de Andalucia and McIlroy to Jean Francois Lucquin in the Omega European Masters.
But McIlroy now looks the stronger player and is 63rd in the world compared to Fisher’s ranking of 224th.
McIlroy said: “He is starting to play really well and again and showing what a good player he is. Hopefully he does well and we are both in there with a shout come Sunday. I feel that when we were growing up, Ollie was always slightly better than me, even though he was a year older.
“He did thing faster than me but I have come on tour and probably done things faster than him. He is a great player and we have a very friendly rivalry, which is good.”
Challenge Tour graduate Gareth Maybin, 28, made the cut on his rookie debut and is the next best of the Irish on two under after a three-under par 67 that could have been a few shots better had it not been for bogeys at the 15th and 16th.
“I was a lot more comfortable today,” Maybin said. “I had it five under and started thinking about it too much and dropped a couple coming in.”
Still star-struck, Maybin added: “The first person I saw when I got here was Jimenez and it is a bit of a reality check. But I am very, very pleased to be here for the weekend and hopefully I can do something the next couple of days.
“You don’t want to come out here on tour and start missing cuts, so tomorrow I am looking to post a good number and climb up the leaderboard.”
Graeme McDowell is one-under after a 68 while his World Cup partner Paul McGinley made the level par cut on the limit after a 69.
Teenage amateur Jason Hak became the youngest player to make the cut at a European Tour event after successive 70s ensured he made it through to the weekend.
The 14-year-old from Hong Kong beat the record set by current world number two Garcia by 107 days.