Like a giant cradling an infant, Shane Lowry displayed the gentlest of touches around the greens at the famed Burma Road and coaxed himself into a share of the lead with Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.
A five-star back nine of 33, four under par, gave the Clara man a second round 70 for a 10 under par total alongside the big Danish veteran, leaving them four clear of Rafa Cabrera Bello (73) and Luke Donald (67) on a day when Rory McIlroy shot a 71 to lurk just five back on five under.
“It is, obviously,” Lowry beamed when asked about his “lovely” birdie-birdie finish courtesy of a deft 20 foot birdie putt at the 18th. “To finish birdie, birdie was nice, especially after I played the back nine lovely after a sloppy double on 9."
Like a born footballer who just knows he's going to come alive the minute he steps out onto Croke Park's hallowed turf, Lowry has had Wentworth ringed on his calendar for weeks and had the mental maturity to let it happen. In terms of his career, this could be a huge weekend for him if he can get out of his own way. In the BMW PGA, this was Lowry at his Rolls Royce best not just in terms of his short game touch, but also mentally.
“I was good out there today. I was mentally there and I really enjoyed it," he said. "Enjoyed the golf course. It was tough, tough for the front nine with the rain and stuff. But it was a nice back nine, and I managed to take advantage of it.”
Two shots behind Bjorn starting the day, Lowry three-putted the seventh but birdied the eighth before making a sloppy six at the ninth by dumping three-wood in a fairway trap, chipping out and then casually three-putting for a double bogey from nowhere.
A player of lesser quality might have panicked a little and been content to trundle home and get in on six under par. But Lowry has always found the short game child’s play and as the wind dropped he played the last nine holes like a man in love with the course, picking up birdies at the 10th, 12th, 17th and 18th despite not hitting as many greens as he might like.
“Yeah, that's what it's all about,” he said when asked about the way he had bounced back on the back nine. “It's just forgetting about your mistakes and trying to get on with things. So we did that well today. I did it well after my mistakes yesterday, as well, so hopefully I can keep it going through the weekend.”
Hampered by mediocre putting, Lowry has played like a man running in treacle all season but after playing well for his best finish of the season in the Spanish Open at PGA Catalunya last week, he and his coach Neil Manchip knew that once he got up a head of steam, he would be an unstoppable juggernaut.
“My two mistakes were two three-putts, but other than that, it was pretty good again, and holed a nice one at the last, which it's good to be there and at the top of the leaderboard.”
The secret to Lowry’s success is an old putter he retrieved from a dark cupboard before heading for Catalunya.
“I just hope it stays friends with me over the next two days,” he said with his trademark grin. “I just have to go out and keep doing what I'm doing, got my coach with me this week and so he's quite good to getting me ready to play no matter what situation I'm in. [I’ll go out for a game with Thomas tomorrow and see how I get on.”
As for McIlroy, still playing under a cloud having broken off his engagement to Caroline Wozniacki and cancelled their wedding, he’s somehow managing to survive on the adrenaline of contending for his first title of the season.
For a while the situation looked as grim as his private life, two bogeys and a double against one birdie in the first seven holes.
But he too came back strongly and boost by another eagle three at the 12th, he followed a bogey at the 13th with three birdies in his last four holes for a 71 that looked most unlikely a few hours earlier.
“Standing on the 10th tee, my goal was to get back to even par for the day,” McIlroy said. “I thought that would have been good, and I was able to go one better.
“Five-under par going into the weekend, when the conditions are pretty tricky, is a good effort, and you know, I stood here yesterday saying that I would be happy to make the cut, and I'm in for the weekend, which is nice. Hopefully I can make a run at it.”
“ I feel like I'm playing well enough to shoot something in the mid 60s tomorrow — maybe not tomorrow, the weather doesn't look too good — but playing well enough to get myself in the mix going into Sunday. Hopefully I can do that.”
Aided by soft condition in his quest to play Wentworth more tactically, McIlroy was inevitably asked about his mental state post-wozniacki and the difficulties that poses.
“It's been tough. I think yesterday was a little tougher than today. I was apprehensive going out yesterday. I didn't know what was going to happen, and at least going out today, I knew I guess what to expect. I think it was good that I had the quick turnaround from last night to this morning just to get straight back out on to the golf course. You know, that was a good thing, too….
“I think once you get inside the ropes, you're concentrating on your golf, and it's almost like it's a nice four or five hours of, you know, it's like a release in some way just to get everything out of your head apart from doing the job at hand. So it's nice. It's the hours in the day when you're away from it that are probably a little more difficult. Of course it is [a help]. You can't let your mind wander at all when you're trying to win a golf tournament.”
Simon Thornton leapt 81 spots up the leaderboard to 19th on two under thanks to a four under 68, but the rest of the Irish slipped down the leaderboard.
It was back to soda break for Padraig Harrington had 33 putts in a 76, taking six at the first and racking up another six bogeys and four birdies to slip back to tied 47th at one over.
At least he made the cut, as did Damien McGrane, who was four over after four holes but somehow managed to shoot 73 to make it on the two over par limit.
Michael Hoey (76) miss by one, Paul McGinley (75) and Darren Clarke (74) by three and Peter Lawrie (76) by five with Gareth Maybin (78) and Damian Mooney (76) well off the pace on 11 over