Rory McIlroy is determined to show Danny Willett who’s top gun with a weekend shootout for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at The K Club corral.
The Holywood gunslinger reminded new kid on the block Willett that he won their battle for the Race to Dubai title last year.
And after a grinding 70 left him just a shot behind the Masters champion and Scotland’s Marc Warren on seven under par at halfway, he’s hoping to come out blasting over the next two days and grab his first Irish Open title.
More than €1.4m adrift of Willett in the race to be European No 1 for the third year in a row and the fourth in five years, McIlroy thrilled 17,628 fans and said: “I don’t think I need any extra incentive but we had a great battle for the Race To Dubai last year.
“I want to beat him to that again this year and he’s obviously got a big lead on me so I need to take advantage of tournaments like this which are big enough prize funds.
“There’s incentive enough there, no matter if he’s the Masters champion or not. I need to go out there and play a good week-end to try and catch up on him.”
McIlroy made five birdies for the second day running but while he’s been pegged back by “soft’ bogeys, he reckons he can push his game into overdrive and leave the rest for dead as he seeks his maiden Irish Open win.
Asked if he had more gears, McIlroy said: “I do. I feel like it’s been good, it’s been quite solid, the last couple of days, but there’s definitely more in there.
“Whether I get to show that this week, depending on what the conditions are like, it might be a bit of a grind out there over the weekend, but I feel like my game’s in good shape.
“As I said at the start of the week, there’s something waiting there to click, and when it does, I could be off and running and it could be the catapult and momentum I need to have another great summer.
“Hopefully that is the case, but my game’s in good shape.”
It was a good week for the Irish as nine of the 22 hopefuls made the cut with just two of the survivors coming from the tough side of the draw — Paul McGinley and Shane Lowry.
Lowry made the cut right on the two over par mark, holing a 10 footer at the last for a par and a 75 after going into the water with his second.
And that means that the best of the rest of the Irish are rookie Gavin Moynihan (71), Ryder Cup hero Graeme McDowell (72) and McGinley, who are tied for 24th on one over par.
Veteran McGinley was three over for the tournament after seven holes before rattling in four birdies in a row from the ninth.
While he bogeyed the 15th coming home and had to settle for a 71, the 49-year old was thrilled to make the cut with ease on one under par with his successor as Ryder Cup skipper, Darren Clarke, tied for 34th with Gary Hurley on level par after a 71.
McGinley beamed: “We got the worst of the draw but I’m obviously very pleased to have made the cut and be right there in contention.
“I played well in The Irish Open last year, too and was hovering around 20th position when I had to withdraw on the Sunday morning with my back.
“This is a really tough course for me — incredibly long — but I putted well, my short iron play was good and I gave myself some chances.”
As Scot Warren shot a 66 to set the target at eight under par, overnight leader Willett posted a 71 to match him at the top
The Englishman missed just four fairways and again putted well to keep his nose in front.
With threeballs in operation today, Willett and McIlroy will be joined by Warren but the Masters winner is not looking at it as a head-to-head just yet.
Willett said: “It would be good fun regardless who you're up against. Warren is a fantastic player, and obviously Rory is there, as well.
“If I can be somewhere there or thereabouts come Sunday, that would be great.
“I hit it good in places and scrappy here and there. It was cold this morning and balls aren’t flying miles. It’s windy, as well, at times. Gusty.
“There were a couple obviously sneakier flags today, too so obviously Marc's score is fantastic — a 66 was a great score.”
McIlroy got the best of the weather in the second round but it wasn’t all plain sailing.
One under after four, he misread an eight footer for birdie at the 16th, bogeyed the 17th after a fluffed chipping but then birdied the18th and drained a 30 footer for birdie at the first .
While he bogeyed the third after coming up short, he two putted for a birdie four at the fourth to rejoin Willett in the lead but then bogeyed the fifth where he was blocked out by trees.
A huge roar went up as he holed a 20 footer at the ninth and he admitted that he felt “relief and excitement” to make his first cut in the Irish Open since 2011,
He said: “I’m excited to be in there for the weekend with a chance to win.
“I feel like it could have been better today. But if you look at the leaderboard, I'm only one shot out of the lead.
“It would have been nice to shoot something in the 60s today but felt I controlled my game pretty well.
“I made a few more mistakes today, and it was pretty tricky with the wind. A 70 I felt was a decent score.
“Obviously I haven't made the cut here for a while, and to be in for the weekend and play a solid two rounds of golf, I'm right there in the mix.
“I usually don't stand up here after a second day and say I'm relieved to make the cut, but it's great to be here for the weekend.”
Hoping the crowds come out in force, he added: “It's great to see Danny up there, as well. I was very pleased that he committed to come and play here. It's shaping up to be a good weekend.
“Any time you have a current Major Champion up there near the top of the leaderboard, it always makes it better. With my tournament hat on, I'm happy with how it's going.
“But I'm obviously even more excited that I'm in with a chance of winning the golf tournament.”
McIlroy confessed that he was “lucky” to get the good side of the draw but then admitted that he might have had some influence in an Friday morning tee-time as he wanted to attend last night’s Leinster-Ulster Pro-12 rugby clash.
He said: “There’s a reason I played Friday morning, but, yeah. To be honest the Ulster-Leinster game tonight is a little bit more important to me than the FA Cup final tomorrow.”
England’s Matthew Southgate is the best round of players from the “wrong” side of the draw with a three under 69 in the afternoon rain leaving him alone in fourth, three off the pace on five under.