Graeme McDowell was the strongman of the partnership as Ireland fired an eight under par 64 in the fourballs to take a two stroke lead into today’s final round foursomes at the Omega Mission Hills World Cup in China.
But after enduring what has been an ‘annus horribilis’ in the wake of his incredible 2010 season, the 32-year old will take some satisfaction from an otherwise disappointing year if he and world number two Rory McIlroy can become just the third Irish team to lift the trophy following Harry Bradshaw and Christy O’Connor in 1958 and Paul McGinley and Padraig Harrington in 1997.
“I’ve been very happy the way things have been going for the last few months,” said McDowell after making seven of Ireland’s eight birdies as they stormed into the outright lead on 21-under par.
“I have been playing much better and feeling much better within myself. Hopefully I can go out with Rory and we can give this thing a run tomorrow.
“Who knows, it may be my first ‘W’ of the year but I am not going to get ahead of myself. We have got a lot of work to do.”
As every football fan knows, you don’t win a World Cup without a stiff challenge from the Germans and McDowell and McIlroy are well aware that Martin Kaymer and Alex Cejka are tied for second with South Africa and the United States on 19-under par.
The German pair and South Africa’s major winning duo of Louis Oosthuizen and reigning Masters champion Charl Schwartzel shot 11-under par 61’s yesterday to loom ominously into the picture alongside the American pairing of Gary Woodland and Matt Kuchar, who posted a nine-under 63 on the Blackstone Course on Hainan Island.
Australia’s Richard Green and Brendan Jones are just three shots behind Ireland in solo fifth after picking up two late birdies in an otherwise disappointing 67.
With McDowell doing to the lion’s share of the work on the greens, mainly because he was putting first, Ireland birdied the seven of the first 11 holes and then stalled as the chasing pack closed in.
Four successive par - which included the par-five 12th and 13th holes - set nerves tingling before McDowell drove the green at the 316-yard 16th and mischievously flexed his muscles to the crowd before going on to two-putt for a birdie that doubled Ireland’s lead to two strokes.
“In that format, when you string together a few pars you just feel like you have spike marks all over your back,” McDowell said of Ireland’s back nine slowdown. “You are losing so much ground to the field and we got a little frustrated. We played the first 11 holes phenomenally well and then we got a little cold.
“We could have put a little bit of daylight between us and the rest of the field. We didn’t do it but we have still got a great chance tomorrow. Two ahead, we are going to have to go and play well, it’s as simple as that.”
Feted as a golfing god since he arrived in China, McIlroy was bemused to be asked “the meaning of life” by a Chinese journalist in the post-round press conference.
But whatever his thoughts on that philosophical poser, he knows that Ireland will need a divine performance in the foursomes today to make amends for the disappointment of 2009, when they led by three shots with seven holes to play only to be squeezed into second place by Italy.
“We might have got a little bit protective of the lead,” McIlroy said, casting his mind back two years. “I think we need to go out there tomorrow and stay aggressive and not really think about playing foursomes but think about playing our own shots and committing to them and staying 100 percent committed to everything we do.”
The world number two is well aware that Ireland has a great chance of joining some golfing immortals on the list of World Cup winners and he was grateful to see McDowell regain his putting touch yesterday.
“Anything around eight-nine-ten under par is a good score in that format, and I was just lucky enough that Graeme played very, very well today and holed a lot of great putts,” he said. “I was a spectator for the majority of the round, but it was good.”
McIlroy confessed that it became frustrating to watch Germany, South Africa and the USA creep up in the leaderboard on the back nine but he believes Ireland have more than enough quality as a foursomes duo to close out what would be an historic victory.
“We are not going to have to make as many birdies to hold our position on the leaderboard,” he said, targeting a repeat of 68 they shot in Friday’s alternate shot format. “If we go out and play the foursomes as well as we did on Friday, I don’t think anyone will be able to catch us.”
Capping a major winning year with a World Cup victory would certainly mean a lot to the 22-year old US Open champion.
“Just to add your name to the list of names and countries that have won this tournament, the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead,” he said.
“They are just two American teams that feature four of the best players ever to play the game. So to be able to put your name on a trophy like that would be very special.”