By Brian Keogh
Rookie Rory McIlroy produced a spectacular finish at St Andrews to boost his hopes of a massive pay day in the €3.5 million Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
The teenager, 18, hit his lowest round as a pro when he drained a 35 footer from the Valley of Sin for a super 67.
Needing to earn over €200,000 to secure his tour card on sponsor's invitations, McIlroy could get enough if he finishes as high as third tomorrow night.
But Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke were just as hot as they also finished with birdies at the Home of Golf to remain in the shake up for the title.
Playing in just his second event as a pro, McIlroy drained a 35-foot monster from the infamous Valley of Sin at the 18th for five under par 67 that left him tied with Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Gary Murphy on six under par.
But it was defending champion Harrington who led the Irish challenge at halfway after a 66 at St Andrews boosted him to within three of the lead on eight under.
Most of the big guns were in action at St Andrews, where Clarke hit a sensational 66 that will boost his shattered confidence.
Out in seven under par 29, the Ulsterman stumbled with two bogeys on the back nine but finished birdie-birdie to boost his chances of regaining some form.
Clarke said: "Bob Torrance has given me a couple of tips on the range. He came over and said my swing had got too narrow.
"It was something I had been aware of, but he had watching me hit balls came over and offered me some help and it seems to be working at the moment."
Harrington is more worried about his Order of Merit rivals but mixed eight birdies with two bogeys in a 66 to trail South African Hennie Otto, Aussie Peter O'Malley and England's Nick Dougherty by just three shots.
Of his rivals for the money title, only fourth placed Ernie Els is ahead of him thanks to a second successive 67.
Harrington said: "I holed a few more putts that I did yesterday and that's the difference.
"I might have even played a little bit better yesterday but I hit a few nice irons shots and a lot of nice iron shots and a few more points which meant I ended up shooting 66.
"That happens when your stay patient. You might not do it for four days but if you can do it two out of four you are going to hole putts.
"I'm still making mistakes that I would put down to not being as sharp as I would like to be but I am still somewhat in the tournament and that's very pleasing.
"I know my focus should be better tomorrow and the next day and I can build through the week. I haven't blown myself out of this tournament by any means.
"The back nine there played played quite difficult but hopefully Kingsbarns will give up another good score tomorrow and let's see what happens on Sunday."
McIlroy got off to a nightmare start when he dumped his 106-yard wedge in the burn at the opening hole and ran up a double bogey six.
But he hit back with birdies at the third, fourth, fifth and seventh before hitting top gear on the back nine.
A lob wedge to four feet at the 10th got him to four under for the tournament and he followed that with birdies at the 13th and 18th to stay on course for a pay cheque that could earn him his tour cards.
McIlroy said: "That was a great finish and I had given myself so many chances out there and I feel as though I probably deserved that one at the last.
"I've holed out before from the Valley of Sin but not in competition so it was pretty nice to do it today and it certainly made up for my start.
"I wasn't going to let the double at the first affect me as I came back really well with birdies at three, four and five, and I have always played really well around St Andrews.
"I've only had three previous competitive rounds around here but I've just had so many practice rounds with my best being a 69 to the 67 today is my best and that makes me feel pretty good.
"Despite it being so calm and sunny, the Old Lady can still bite you and it bit me hard at the first but I got my head down and just ground it out, so I feel as though I got a big bite back with seven birdies."
While he still has sponsors invitations lined up for the Madrid Open, Portuguese Masters, McIlroy hopes to earn enough this week to finish in the top 115 on the money list.
He said: "I'm in a position now when I can attack having played really well to shoot 71 at Carnoustie that's the hardest of the three, and now to shoot 67 here at the Home of Golf.
"So if I can shoot something in the 60s at Kingsbarns and then come back here to St Andrews on Saturday and shoot something similar to this 67, then I'll well on my way to a great finish."
McDowell hit a 68 and Murphy a 67 at Kingsbarns to share 25th place with Clarke and McIlroy on six under par.
Damien McGrane also hit a 68 at Kingsbarns to finish a shot further back on five under.