Shane Lowry cast himself in the role of Irish Open messiah once more when he finished with a roof-raising brace of birdies to ease the pain of a major exodus by Rory McIlroy and the rest of Ireland’s Big Five at a wind-blown Carton House.
Even without the heavy rain and the deep rough that caused havoc here in 2005 and 2006, the Montgomerie Course claimed the scalps of five of the six headline stars that adorn the publicity hoardings for a €2m event that simply cannot fail if those who control the pursestrings are to remain convinced that it can continue without a title sponsor.
As a crowd of 21,377 took the week’s attendance to an acceptable 40,000 plus - down 10,000 on Royal Portrush’s record gate but slightly ahead of Killarney in 2011 - only Lowry managed to live up to his star billing as just eight of Ireland’s 27 starters made the level par cut.
“Will Irish Eyes Be Smiling?” asks the banner that clads the first tee. Only Lowry, it appears, has a realistic chance of making that come true.
The 26-year old added a two under 70 to his opening 68 to go into the weekend in a five-way tie for third on the course he now calls home, just two shots behind American rookie Peter Uihlein (68) and England’s Robert Rock (66), the man he beat in that unforgettable three-hole play-off at Baltray to claim the Irish Open as an amateur in 2009.
Take Lowry out of the equation and the devastation caused by yesterday’s 25 mph winds was considerable.
World No 2 McIlroy is facing questions about his commitment in some media quarters after confessing that he had too many extra-curricular activities to perform over the next week to add the French Open to his schedule and get some much needed competitive practice under his belt before The Open at Muirfield in a fortnight.
The Ulsterman added a level par 72 to his opening 74 to miss the level par cut by two shots and will watch on the sidelines with fellow major winners Pádraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell, who shot 74s to miss by one as well as Darren Clarke and Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley.
“I’m fine, I’m okay, I’m more disappointed for the tournament than myself,” McIlroy insisted. “We have Shane up there at least but it’s disappointing that I’m not here and Graeme, Darren, Pádraig and Paul McGinley have missed the cut as well.
“It’s not great, but it’s just the way it is and it’s golf. You have good weeks and you have bad weeks.”
Under pressure after his opening 74, McIlroy hit just nine fairways in two days and also finished near the bottom of the putting charts after using the blade 32 times yesterday.
While he had five birdies, he also had five bogeys as he consistently missed fairways or greens to the right and scrambled poorly.
“If I had of shot a better score yesterday or just a little sharper around the greens today, it would be a different story,” McIlroy said before explaining that he can’t add Paris to his schedule because he has a commitment to his sponsor Banco Santander early next week and has also promised to attend his cousin’s wedding on Friday.
“It isn’t really ideal and I guess it would be nice to play another event,” McIlroy said. “But as long as I play rounds and play golf on these courses, be competitive myself, go and spend a few days at Muirfield and play and try and shoot score, that’s the same sort of thing.”
His biggest problem is that he still has work to do to find the perfect Nike driver after admitting that he’s struggling with his swing and not 100 percent happy with the current weapon in his bag.
“This was a new driver in the bag this week and still wasn’t 100 percent what I want, so I’m testing with Nike again next week. I’ll hit one really good and the next not so much. That’s a combination of maybe the driver not being 100 percent right for me, and my swing not being where it should be.
“It’s definitely more swing than it is club. If I was swinging my best, I would stand up and hit sort of any shot that I want to hit. I’m still confident in my ability to hit the golf ball and hit good shots.
“I guess your confidence comes with seeing good shots and seeing putts go in the hole and shooting good rounds and getting posting good results.
“I guess in that way, from the results point of view, it’s not great, but from being on the golf course and seeing some good shots, I’m definitely more positive today than I was yesterday.”
McDowell and Harrington never got anything going as they finished on one over par after carding matching 74s.
“I played very averagely and putted worse,” McDowell said. “I couldn’t get the speed of the greens and I’m not quite on with my golf swing. I don’t want to be missing cuts any week, let alone The Irish Open.”
Harrington was always on the back foot on the greens, missing birdie chances inside 10 feet at his first, third and fourth holes.
A three-putt bogey at the 14th, his fifth, left him near the cut mark and when he bunkered his approach to the 16th and missed another 10 footer, he was on his way out.
“It always meant that I was just watching that cut line all day and that never gave me any freedom to go forward,” said Harrington, who was also poor with his wedges.
Ryder Cup skipper McGinley missed out on four over after a 76 with former Open champion Clarke well off the pace on six over after a pair of 75s.
Lowry was only a 22-year old amateur when he famously beat Rock in a play-off to take the 2009 Irish Open at Baltray. But this is a new level of responsibility.
“With Pádraig, Rory and Graeme missing the cut and Paul as well, it’s going to be quite disappointing for the Irish crowd,” Lowry said. “Hopefully I can give them something to cheer about the weekend.”
Another showdown with Rock would be ideal but Lowry doesn’t care.
“I’ve played with Rocky quite a bit over the last few days, obviously the Irish Open I won, I beat him in a playoff,” he said. “I don’t care who it is that’s up there, as long as I’m up there.”
Lowry got off to a horror start to be two over after three holes but while he dropped two more shots he made up for it with six birdies - two of them coming late in the day courtesy of a 15 footer at the 17th and a three-footer at the last.
“Mentally I was very good today,” he said. “I didn’t get down on myself, just dug it out and I managed to finish birdie, birdie for 70, which I’m actually chuffed about.”
Lowry is tied for third with overnight leader Oscar Floren (71), Dutchman Joost Luiten (70), former champion José María Olazábal (69) and Portugal’s Ricardo Santos (66) with Scotland’s Scott Henry in a three-way tie for eighth on six inder after a best of the week 64.
Joint leader Rock hit an eagle and four birdies in an error free 66 to match Uihlein on nine under but even though he beat Tiger Woods down the stretch to win in Abu Dhabi last year, he doesn’t fancy taking on Lowry on his home patch.
“I’ll never forget that day playing with Shane,” Rock said, recalling the highly partisan crowd. “That was really, really tough.
“That was probably harder almost than beating Tiger, because I did feel like I had some people on my side in Abu Dhabi. At Baltray I don’t even think there was one.”
Gareth Shaw, Simon Thornton, Alan Dunbar, Damian Mooney, Michael Hoey, Peter Lawrie and West Waterford’s Seamus Power all joined Lowry for the weekend but there were many disappointed faces.
Limerick’s Cian McNamara followed his 68 with a 78 to miss the cut by two shots alongside Rory McIlroy. Little comfort, perhaps, but an indication that golf is a great leveller.
Irish Open tee-times
07.15 Power, Sullivan.
07.24 Benson, Derksen.
07.33 Huang, Mulroy.
07.42 Wattel, Havret.
07.51 De La Riva, Baldwin.
08.00 Macauley, Warren.
08.09 Del Moral, Morrison.
08.18 Ilonen, Little.
08.32 Peter Lawrie, Rumford.
08.41 Bland, Kieffer.
08.50 Jensen, Sjoland.
08.59 Drysdale, Fisher.
09.08 Lloyd, Hoey.
09.17 Sterne, Harto.
09.26 Snobeck, Gallacher.
09.40 Mooney, Dodt.
09.49 Gonnet, Dunbar.
09.58 Finch, Howell.
10.07 Storm, Thornton.
10.16 Fisher, Paisley.
10.25 Willett, Paul Lawrie.
10.34 Dodd, Lara.
10.48 Kjeldsen, Andersson Hed.
10.57 Shaw, Walters.
11.06 Campillo, Casey.
11.15 Grillo, Quiros.
11.24 Kaleka, Pepperell.
11.33 Canizares, Molinari.
11.42 Hansen, Donaldson.
11.56 Bjorn, Gaunt.
12.05 Cabrera-Bello, Whiteford.
12.14 Larrazabal, Henry.
12.23 Lowry, Jacquelin.
12.32 Santos, Luiten.
12.41 Floren, Olazabal.
12.50 Rock, Uihlein.