If Rory McIlroy was wondering who might step up to challenge him in next week’s Open at Sandwich, he need look no further than Ireland’s other majors winners.
Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington appear to have found their best form in the nick of time and if they don’t wear themselves out chasing the Barclays Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, they have more than enough game to bring Ireland yet more major glory at Royal St George’s next week.
Both men took advantage of benign early morning conditions to race into contention for victory tomorrow with McDowell firing a bogey free, eight under par 64 to share the lead on 11 under par in the weather delayed second round.
The Dubliner has now broken 70 in five of his last six rounds and while he admitted that he could have holed a few more putts on Friday, he is happy with his form ahead of the season’s third major.
However, the world No 57 will have to play some of his best golf in years to have a chance of overhauling an inspired McDowell over the weekend.
Last year’s US Open champion had an eagle and six birdies in his 64 to share top spot with Scots Peter Whiteford and Scott Jamieson when play was suspended for the second time in the second round due to thunderstorms.
“Typically, I prefer the tougher test but you’ve got to adapt,” said McDowell who has been left to rue at least one bad round recently after some torrid times in March and April. “It’s nice to shoot 64s and know that I can do it. I think the art of going low is a very important art. When you play a lot of tough golf courses, which my schedule is set up for, you kind of lose that art. So it’s nice to go out there and get the low-juices going.”
“The course was there for the taking. If you don’t get the elements, then it will be taken apart and that was kind of how it was out there.
“Sometimes when it’s that easy, it can be tough,” said McDowell, “because you’re trying so hard to make a birdie on every hole and there’s really no let-up. Sometimes you can force it a little too much. I tried to stay as patient as I possibly could and there’s chances galore ahead of you if you stay in the present.”
McDowell knows he has the game to win an Open and after some decent starts in recent years, he’s hoping he can challenge to “The Man”, as he now calls his friend McIlroy.
“I feel quite fresh in my mind. That ought to be something to do with the way I felt at Congressional. I felt at Congressional like a subconscious weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I really shouldn’t be complaining about the burden of being the US Open champion.
“I had a great 12 months and played some great golf, but it had a negative side to it. I really wanted to push on with my game and I didn’t really feel like I could. I’ve talked before about spending all of my time reliving 2010.
“I feel really good now. There’s another Northern Irishman to take all the attention off me this time. I’ll let him handle that stuff and I’m very happy to push on and get back to winning tournaments. I’ll maybe play a practice round with ‘The Man’ next week.
“Depends on what his movements are. If his US Open preparation is anything to go by he might not get there until Tuesday night again. Maybe that’s the magic recipe, we’ll see. I would love to have a knock with him or I might play a few holes with Ben Curtis, who’s a good friend of mine as well.”
If McDowell felt obliged to go low, Harrington also felt pressure.
“It’s a really nice golf course and it does give up a few birdies,” he said. “You feel under pressure to make those birdies. It’s a good golf course, a fair golf course, and certainly you know, going to need a low one on the weekend and hopefully that’s going to be me.”
Recapping on a round that featured six birdies and a solitary bogey, he said: “It was a beautiful day for golf. Couldn’t have asked for nicer conditions out there early, and you know, I was happy with how I played, happy with how things went about, but could have holed a few more putts I suppose. Nice putt in there on my 17th hole and nice to finish, get one more birdie in the bag. I feel comfortable with 8-under par.”
Asked about how Castle Stuart stood up as a decent training ground for the Open, Harrington added: “I like it. This is a big event in itself anyway, and I’d be very happy to win The Scottish Open, so let’s focus on this for two more days and then start thinking about The Open on Monday.”
The cut will fall at three or four under par, which is good news for the struggling Damien McGrane as fired a 67 to finish on four under for two rounds.
Gareth Maybin faces an anxious wait after a 68 left him on three under while the rest of the Irish will resume the second rounds at 7am today.
Peter Lawrie was six under for the tournament, 2 under for 13 holes, alongside Darren Clarke, who had played his first eight holes in three under when the hooter sounded.
Paul McGinley was a shot further back on five under, two under for the day through 11 holes with Shane Lowry on four under after two birdies and a bogey in eight holes.
Like McGrane, Lowry would love to make the cut and end a miserable run of three failures in a row that includes the US Open, the BMW International Open and last week’s French Open.