Graeme McDowell’s hopes of having a final round “showdown” with Rory McIlroy were scotched as they went in opposite directions at St Andrews.
The US Open champ, 30, defied wet and windy conditions to hit seven birdies in a 68 to scorch into contention on five under par as McIlroy followed his 63 with a nightmare 80.
Seven shots behind red-hot pace-setter Louis Oosthuizen, early starter McDowell knows that winning back to back majors will be a massive challenge.
But he’d love to take on pal McIlroy coming down the stretch, insisting: “That would be pretty special. I’ve always wanted to have a chance to go head to head with him on Sunday afternoon somewhere. If the stars align here tomorrow, who knows. Sunday could be a showdown.”
McDowell crossed paths with McIlroy as he walked up the 18th and the younger man was just heading down the first.
He crossed the fairway to embrace McDowell, who finished with a birdie three to ignite his Open challenge.
G-Mac explained: “I just told him to play well. He said, ‘good playing.’ It would be great to play together on Sunday with the Open on the line but there is a long way to go.”
McDowell was 10 shots behind McIlroy at one stage of his first round 71 but slowly clawed his way back up the leaderboard.
After a bogey at the first, he dropped shots with a pair of clumsy three putts at the third and fourth before battling back.
He birdied the par-five fifth and then reeled of a hat-trick of birdies from the seventh to turn in 33 before coming home in one under.
Born and raised on the windy links at Royal Portrush, McDowell wants the wind to blow hard over the weekend.
He said: “I need it to blow obviously, and Louis is obviously a long way ahead of me, and if he keeps going deep, he’s going to be tough to catch.
“But this is a major weekend. Obviously weather is going to be a huge element, and I’m happy to be in position.”
Tom Watson described McDowell’s US Open win as being like a NASCAR race with a massive pile up in the final round.
The Portrush ace weaved his way through the wreckage to grab his first major and history could repeat itself at St Andrews.
Wary of the dangers in stores, he said: “‘There’s trouble out there. There are plenty of deep coffin like bunkers to bury wreckage in out there.
“If there’s no wind and you’ve got a driver in the bag like Rory has, there’s no trouble. You can just blow it over the trouble.
“But when the wind gets up like this, it’s a different kind of fish, it really is.
“That’s what I love about links golf. There’s nothing one dimensional about the golf out there.
“You’ve got to hold them up, hook them on the wind, putt it from long range, chip and run it. You’ve just got to do everything out there, and it’s a great test.”