A frustrated and disappointed Rory McIlroy slipped five strokes behind what Graeme McDowell described as an “immense” Dustin Johnson at the halfway stage of the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai.
Leading by two after an impressive 65, McIlroy made a hat-trick of birdies from the sixth on his front nine but dropped three shots in a lacklustre back nine to post a 72 that left him where he started the day on seven under par.
The world No 6 was lucky to avoid water off the tee at the par-five last but gambled by taking on a 228-yard approach over water and came up short in the hazard.
After taking a penalty drop back onto the fairway, McIlroy hit a wonderful fourth shot from 250 yards to 15 feet but missed the par putt and signed for a level-par 72.
“Disappointing, frustrating,” McIlroy said at the finish. “I obviously played nicely on the front nine and then started to hit a lot of sloppy shots on the back. I missed the last six greens in a row, seven on the back nine, so a bit of work is needed on the range this afternoon.”
McIlroy holed a long bomb for birdie at the short sixth, a 10 footer at the short, par-four seventh and then hold from the fringe at the eighth to complete his birdie hat-trick before struggling on the back nine.
Bunkered off the tee at the 11th, he caught the face with his attempted escape, pitched to 15 feet but missed the par putt. After scrambling for pars at the 13th and 14th, his approach with a lob wedge found the front bunker at the 15th and he failed to get up and down.
“I hit a couple of bad shots and then I guess I let it affect me a little bit and then I started to doubt myself sometimes,” McIlroy said after his closing bogey. “I didn’t hit a lot of quality shots on the back nine.
“It would have been nice to play a bit better and start tomorrow with a few more shots in hand but I guess I’m in a decent position going into the weekend, and still have a great chance at winning this tournament.”
The Holywood native is tied for second place on seven under with Bubba Watson (69) and Boo Weekley (67) but Johnson cruised five clear of the field thanks to an impressive driving and putting display that yielded 10 birdies and just one bogey in a course record equalling 63.
McDowell shot a second successive 69 alongside Johnson to end the day in a six-way share of fifth place on six under with Tommy Fleetwood (70), Sergio Garcia (68), Gonzalo Fernandez Castaño (71) and Ernie Els (69).
But the Portrush man was blown away by Johnson’s performance and was simply happy to hang tough and mix five birdies with two bogeys.
“Yesterday was very solid,” McDowell said. “Today was a little untidier in general, but I hung in there. I haven’t really lit the world up on the greens yet this week, but you know, it was kind of tough to focus when playing with Dustin Johnson, hitting it 350 yards in the middle of the fairways. It was kind of a little demoralising at times.
“But I was happy that I hung in there. I hit some good shots today. Played very solidly yesterday. Today was a little off, like I say, but happy to shoot three-under par.
“I’m in a decent position going into the weekend, so looking forward to it. This is a golf course that, yes, the long guys like. But it also rewards good iron play and the greens are fantastic, so you can make some putts.”
Johnson, four behind McIlroy following an opening 69, birdied six of his first seven holes - his only par coming on the third - and narrowly missed further birdie chances on the eighth and ninth to be out in 30.
The big-hitting American dropped his first shot of the day after missing the green on the 10th, but responded with birdies on the 13th, 14th, 16th and 18th.
“DJ drove the ball phenomenal for two days,” McDowell said. “Looked a little loose coming in there today. Who knows. If he keeps playing the way he’s played the last two days, he’ll be tough to catch. But there’s a long way to go, a lot of quality players in this tournament.”
When it was suggested that Johnson’s round was an example of what was possible around Sheshan International, McDowell said: “What’s possible for an athlete like him who just rips it, that’s not what’s possible for the rest of us sometimes.
“It was probably one of the best driving displays I’ve seen this year for sure. It was pretty immense. He’s got a short game to match, as well. So he’s an impressive guy. When he’s in the mood and when he’s on form, he’s pretty prolific.”
Johnson was pleased with his effort - he’s 14 under par for his last 33 holes - after being two over after just three holes on Thursday.
“Yesterday I doubled my third hole of the day, the 12th, and played really well after that and this morning on the range I worked on a few things and hit it really well coming out of the gates and obviously putted well,” Johnson told Sky Sports.
“This course is great, you put this in America and it would hold up to any of them over there. I think it’s a great course, it’s in great shape and the greens are really good but you have to be spot-on with your iron shots because there is a lot of undulation and today I controlled my distance really well and drove it really well.
“There are still two more days of golf left so I will come out tomorrow and try to do the same thing I did today. I don’t tend to play defensively, I just play my game and I play pretty aggressively.”
WGC-HSBC Champions at Sheshan International Golf Club (par 72)
132 D Johnson (USA) 69 63,
137 B Weekley (USA) 70 67, R McIlroy (Nir) 65 72, B Watson (USA) 68 69,
138 T Fleetwood (Eng) 68 70, S Garcia (Esp) 70 68, I Poulter (Eng) 71 67, G McDowell (Nir) 69 69, E Els (RSA) 69 69, G Fdez-Castaño (Esp) 67 71,
139 J Rose (Eng) 68 71, J Spieth (USA) 68 71, J Jeong (Kor) 70 69, G Delaet (Can) 71 68, P Mickelson (USA) 71 68, K Bradley (USA) 71 68, L Wen-Chong (Chn) 72 67,
140 M Brown (Nzl) 72 68, L Oosthuizen (RSA) 70 70, J Dufner (USA) 73 67, G Bhullar (Ind) 69 71, B Horschel (USA) 71 69,
141 L Donald (Eng) 70 71, F Molinari (Ita) 72 69, J Donaldson (Wal) 67 74, M Ilonen (Fin) 72 69,
142 K Duke (USA) 70 72, C Wood (Eng) 71 71, P Casey (Eng) 69 73, M Manassero (Ita) 72 70,
143 S Hend (Aus) 69 74, P Hanson (Swe) 70 73, B Gay (USA) 71 72, L Hao-Tong (Chn) 72 71, G Bourdy (Fra) 75 68, D Ernst (USA) 71 72, K Streelman (USA) 70 73,
144 R Moore (USA) 70 74, D Fichardt (RSA) 70 74, D Lynn (Eng) 74 70, L Westwood (Eng) 71 73, P Uihlein (USA) 71 73, H Wen-Yi (Chn) 70 74, B Van Pelt (USA) 77 67, B Haas (USA) 72 72, M Kaymer (Ger) 70 74, R Fowler (USA) 74 70, T Jaidee (Tha) 76 68,
145 M Hendry (Nzl) 72 73, S Piercy (USA) 72 73, H Fujita (Jpn) 75 70, J Blixt (Swe) 70 75, J Van Zyl (RSA) 72 73, M Kawamura (Jpn) 73 72,
146 T Björn (Den) 74 72, M Thompson (USA) 74 72, J Walker (USA) 73 73, S Gallacher (Sco) 73 73, D Points (USA) 72 74,
147 D Howell (Eng) 72 75, R Sterne (RSA) 74 73, K Aphibarnrat (Tha) 69 78, J Merrick (USA) 72 75, B Snedeker (USA) 73 74,
148 D Popovic (Aus) 77 71, B Grace (RSA) 77 71,
149 B Seuk-Hyun (Kor) 81 68, W Ashun (Chn) 74 75, N Watney (USA) 75 74,
150 H Stenson (Swe) 74 76,
151 R Jacquelin (Fra) 81 70, M Jiménez (Esp) 75 76, H Mu (Chn) 76 75,
152 G Coetzee (RSA) 75 77, B Rumford (Aus) 75 77,
153 R Ishikawa (Jpn) 81 72,
160 H Ming-Jie (Chn) 83 77,
** H Matsuyama (Jpn) 71 WD,