Darren Clarke’s Irish Open dreams were smashed by a nightmare triple bogey eight as Bradley Dredge got his revenge on Adare Manor’s treacherous 18th.
Beaten by Padraig Harrington when he took a double bogey seven in a play-off 12 months ago, Dredge made birdie this time to card a super 66 and snatch a one-stroke lead over England’s Richard Finch on nine-under par.
But Dredge’s joy contrasted starkly with playing partner Clarke’s pain on a day when Ireland’s hopes of retaining the title suffered a serious reverse.
Rory McIlroy hit a 70 and Gary Murphy a fine 68 but at four-under par they are five shots adrift of Welsh wizard Dredge in a share of ninth
Forced to sign for a level par 72, Clarke finished the day tied for 17th with defending champion Harrington, who struggled on the greens again as he signed for a 70.
And Ulsterman Clarke, 39, confessed that he got it badly wrong at the last after battling his way back into contention by erasing two early bogeys with five birdies in a 10-hole stretch.
“It is very disappointing,” said a disconsolate Clarke. “I chose to play the 18th the way I did and I got it wrong. I just have to go out and take my chances tomorrow and see what comes, though six shots is a lot to make up.
“I didn’t play great on the front nine but got myself back into the tournament. That’s what happens. These things happen in golf.”
Just two shots off the lead on six-under par playing the last, Clarke pushed his drive into the right rough and opted to draw his recovery around some trees instead of chipping out sideways.
But his risky strategy backfired as his lay up plugged in a fairway bunker and he spectacularly thinned his wedge over the grandstand behind the green and out of bounds.
Forced to drop in the bunker, his ball plugged again and he had to splash onto the fairway before taking three more to get down for an eight and a level par 72 that sent him tumbling back into the pack.
The sting was taken out of the punishing Adare track by overnight rain as England’s Lee Westwood blasted a sensational course record 64 to lead in the clubhouse on seven under par.
After seeing his course record taken away by his Ryder Cup team mate, Harrington looked certain to go low for the first time all week when he stormed to the turn in 33 to get to four under par.
But his putter went cold on the way home as he played the back nine in one-over for a 70 that leaves him six shots behind Dredge on three under.
“I missed a lot of chances,” Harrington said. “There are a lot of names in front of me that I have to pass tomorrow. It is tough golf course for the leaders and with so many guys in contention it is going to take a really good score tomorrow to win.”
Dredge would love to lift the title after suffering that disappointing loss to Harrington in sudden death last year.
And he believes it might be easier this times as he plays with Finch instead of home favourite Harrington the final group.
He said: “Last year I was playing with Padraig and the Irish crowd wanted to see him win. I have managed to conquer the 18th hole so far.”
McIlroy and Murphy know that they will have to putt well to have a chance of snatching Ireland’s fifth European Tour win of the season.
McIlroy said: “Overall I am still in there with a chance and I am pleased with the way I played. I am giving myself a lot of chances and it is just a matter of taking advantage of them. I am not putting badly and I just have to hole my share tomorrow and give it a good run.”
Paul McGinley double bogeyed the first after bunkering his tee shot and crashed to a 73 that left him eight shots off the pace.
He said: “You can’t be giving away shots with double bogeys. I feel that the course really punished me but I am happy with how my game is progressing in general.”
Peter Lawrie had a level par 72 to share 42nd place on two over.