As Rory McIlroy was outgunned by David Howell, “Pistol” Peter Lawrie headed the Irish challenge in Killarney and insisted he will come out “all guns blazing” in search of Irish Open glory in Sunday’s final round.
The Dubliner fired a one-under 70 in rainy conditions to finish the day in an eight-way tie for eighth, just four shots behind a trio of pacesetters in Howell, Simon Dyson and Aussie left-hander Richard Green.
As major winners McIlroy and Graeme McDowell slipped eight shots off the pace with one over 72’s, Lawrie said: “The Irish Open is like a major for all of the Irish players so I certainly will be going all guns blazing tomorrow. It would be nice to go out there and shoot a score and put the pressure on somebody else.”
World No 282 Howell fired seven birdies in a sensational, seven under 64 alongside world No 4 and US Open champion McIlroy to lead on 11 under before being joined at the top by Dyson and Green, who both shot 67’s.
The trio of leaders are two shots clear Scot Stephen Gallacher (67) with Belfast’s Michael Hoey and 22-year old Portstewart amateur Paul Cutler, the reigning West of Ireland and Irish Close champion, just five behind on six under after level par 71’s.
McIlroy’s challenge faded when he double bogeyed the first, three-putting after taking two shots to find the green from the sandy beach bordering Lough Leane.
He then bogeyed the third to slip nine shots off the pace before mixing five birdies with a double bogey at the eighth and a bogey at the 12th on the way home.
Confessing that he tried too hard, McIlroy refused to rule out one of his trademark final round charges, insisting: “I depends on how far behind I am but it’s been done before. If I can go out with the mindset, try to get it into double figures under par, shoot 64, it would be a good way to finish the week.”
McIlroy was completely outplayed by Howell, a player he had beaten by 26 shots en route to his breathtaking US Open victory just six weeks ago.
“I’m feeling as if I need a couple of drinks or something,” he said, hinting that he might join McDowell in his birthday celebrations. “It was a bad start, but I got it together at the end and one over is not too bad, considering.
“I’m happy that it’s going right rather than left. At least the club’s out in front of me instead of being behind and flipping it over. It’s an easy fix. It’s the ones that go left I don’t like.
“At this tournament you’re trying so hard to play well for not just yourself, but for everyone else. Sometimes you can just find yourself trying a little too hard and pushing a bit too much.”
Wayward off the tee and uninspired on the greens, McDowell didn’t get the 32nd birthday present he was looking for as he mixed four birdies with three bogeys and a double bogey at the third.
While he believes he’s close to getting back top form, McDowell said he was serious confused by the greens but reasonably happy that his game is close to being back on track after his Open Championship reverse.
“I think I only hit six fairways and you really can’t play this course in the rough,” he said. “I’m very upbeat about the way I’m playing.
“I’m hitting a lot of quality-looking golf shots and I just need to clean everything up a little bit. It’s very close. I’ve gone from drawing the ball a couple of weeks ago to nearly fading the ball, so I need to really look at what my ball shape is right now. I’m hitting a great fade, but I’m a bit scared of the left side of the course and it shouldn’t be like that.”
Overnight leader Marcel Siem double bogeyed the last after a hitting wild approach into a bush, carding a 73 that left him three behind in tied for fifth with Dane Soren Hansen (72) and defending champion Ross Fisher (70) on eight under.
Simon Thornton moved up 21 spots to tied 24th on four under after a fine 69 but it was a disappointing day for Glasson’s Colm Moriarty and Kells’ Damien McGrane as they slipped back into the pack on level par after rounds of 74 and 77.
Early starter John Kelly birdied the 15th and 16th to get back to level par for the day after a tough start but then bogeyed the 17th and double bogeyed the last for a 74 that saw him slip to 62nd on two over par.
Howell’s round was a thing of beauty - eight threes and 10 fours and a day of squally showers and tricly crosswinds.
Now ranked 282nd in the world - he was close to 500th at one stage - the Englishman birdied the fifth and seventh before beginning the back nine with four successive threes that meant birdie at the toughest stretch on the course, the 11th, 12th and 13th.
He made back to back birdies at the 15th and 16th too as he came home in 31 blows. So well did he strike tha ball that he missed just one green. A total of 28 putts did the rest.
“I don’t mind saying it was a superb round,” the always entertaining Howell said afterwards. “I knew it was going to be interesting with all of the crowd, and obviously playing with Rory, who’s got an intimidating game when he’s on.”
As McIlroy shot 72 to his 64, Howell was struck by the contrast in their fortunes just six weeks after the Ulsterman’s US Open win.
“While Rory was doing miraculous things at the US Open, I was absolutely shocking,” he said. “We couldn’t have had more polar opposite weeks, but it led me onto a lot of thinking.
“It’s been a bit of a muddle for a few months, but finally last week I clicked on something that I thought was a sensible course of action in my swing thoughts. Nothing particularly major, but it cleared my mind a bit.”
Howell added: “I’ve not been in the best of form for quite some time, so I was intrigued how I was going to be playing with Rory. He’s the star of world golf, but there were no nerves and the crowds were amazing.
“I think I got inspiration from the big-time atmosphere. I did everything really well and it was great. I’ve given myself a chance - that’s the main thing - and I was delighted to hole a seven-footer for par on the last. Missing it would have been a sad way to end a flawless day.”