The sun-scorched Glashedy Links left them scratching their heads but home stars Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell still believe they can solve an intriguing Ballyliffin links puzzle and challenge for the grand prize tomorrow.
On a day when Pádraig Harrington lurched from disaster to the edge of glorious salvation only to double bogey the last and miss the cut by one, Lowry and Huddersfield-born adopted-Irishman Simon Thornton lead a quintet of surviving home players on two-under par.
They're six shots adrift of New Zealander Ryan Fox, Frenchman Matthieu Pavon and South African Erik Van Rooyen at a course that’s proving an elusive and unpredictable opponent.
But with just nine shots covering the field, they know a round in the mid-60s today could be worth much gold.
That's certainly what McIlroy is thinking despite finishing with two bogeys for a 73.
And like McDowell, who had to grind like never before to make the one-over par cut with a shot to spare, he’s finding the greens more difficult to read than Finnegan's Wake.
"The game felt okay but I didn't hole anything again on the greens so hopefully I can turn that around over the weekend,” McIlroy said after taking 34 putts.
Despite being seven shots behind, he still thinks he can win a Dubai Duty Free Irish Open than attracted a sun-kissed 18,904 crowd yesterday.
"If you see a few drop, you can get some confidence and be a bit more confident in your reads," he said after single-putting just two greens, the fifth for bogey after leaving a tough bunker shot in the sand and the sixth for birdie from around seven feet.
"I'll just keep plugging myself away and giving myself opportunities and hopefully they will fall on the weekend.”
It’s finding the greens in regulation that’s the problem and with the fairways narrow, fiery and difficult to hold, Harrington paid the ultimate price, three-putting the 18th for double bogey and a 78 that left him a shot outside the cut mark.
He was three-over for the day, one-under for the tournament, with six holes to play but lost a ball on the 13th — it was found three seconds after the regulation five-minute search — and followed a double bogey seven there with a three-putt bogey at the next to find himself on two-over.
Salvation looked at hand when he made a birdie bomb at the 16th and then almost eagled the 17th to get back to level.
But he fatally found rough at the last, hacked out and ended up three-putting from long range to miss out when two putts would have been enough.
"I don't know what the percentage of fairways hit but I'm sure it's minuscule and you have no control coming into firm greens out of the rough, even though it's all playable,” Harrington said, lamenting his three-putts on the back nine.
"Unless you're holing a few putts, it's hard to make a lot of birdies.”
He added: “The fairways are 18 yards wide. Toughest hole in golf is the 18th at Carnoustie that's 40, 50 yards wide at one place to probably 30, 35 at its narrowest.
"You know, it's just hard to get it on the fairway. And look, the scoring is about right. I'm not suggesting... I think the scoring is fine. It just the reason why it's not so easy is you know, a lot of good shots tend to finish in the first cut and then you get defensive in laying up.
"It's just the nature of the course. I think the course... I thought it was a good setup. Just the fact that why it is like that. It's just hard to get the ball on the grass, and even on the cut grass with the release of the greens, traditional links golf in the summer, it's bouncy."
While his driving was very poor — he missed several drives in deep rough — it was his closing three-putt which ultimately ended his hopes of making the cut.
"Never really had the pace of the greens today," he said. "It was always a little bit... that was just the way it was. You know, two three-putts coming home cost me dearly. Three times — I three-putted 9, 14 and 18. A bit disappointed with that. Just not really a good day on the greens."
Overnight leader Fox shot a 69 and Frenchman Matthieu Pavon a 68 before South Africa's Van Rooyen birdied the last for a 65 to make it a three-way tie on eight-under par and give many hope that they can still make a run at the title.
They include Lowry, who was beaming after finishing with a birdie for his 70 having limped home on day one.
"I finished very badly yesterday so I was conscious of that and finished strong today,” Lowry said. “I'm a lot happier today than I was yesterday.
"I could be a couple better but I'm happy with that because you have to play the patience game out there.
"I don't think it's going to be low scoring here, so if I can shoot in the 60s tomorrow, I can have a great chance on Sunday."
McDowell dug deep for a 73 to make it on level par but confessed that he was way off the mark when he predicted a 20 to 25-under par winning score.
"My assessment of this golf course after the Pro-Am was certainly incorrect," said the Portrush man, who felt his 20-foot par save on the 16th was key.
"Nobody can understand why this course is not being ripped to shreds — you're not going to get it more benign than this — but the long and short of it is that it's very hard to keep it out of the bunkers off the tee, and the greens are very hard to read.
"It’s not a circus course, it’s just tricky to judge what to hit off the tee and the greens have me scratching my head.
"It would have been a very frustrating cut to miss because you can't make a move from the couch but you can make a move from the morning and I really believe their's a low score out there.”
Paul Dunne made the cut on the one-over par mark after a 72 and decided that he might as well go on the attack with the driver today.
He said: “It’s so hard to hit the fairway anyway I figure if you lob wedge in from the rough you’ve a better chance than an eight-iron and my short game is really sharp at the minute so if I do miss the fairway with the driver, I’ll be able to get round the green and fancy myself to save par.
“So probably a lot more drivers off the tee and see where that leads me.”
It was all about survival but even after acing the 14th to get back to level par, Italy's Edoardo Molinari suffered Harrington's fate with a closing six sending him scuttling home, one shot from salvation.
It was also a day to forget for Derry's Ruaidhri McGee, who was a shot inside the mark playing the par-four ninth — his 18th — but finished with a six for a 74 to miss out by one alongside Gavin Moynihan.
Van Rooyen came closest to mastering the stunning Donegal links on day two, carding eight birdies for a seven under 65 which concluded with a superb birdie at the final hole, where he nearly found the hole with his approach and tapped in for an easy three.
The 28 year old enters the weekend on an eight under par total along with Pavon and Fox, all three chasing their maiden European Tour titles. Joakim Lagergren, who two months ago lifted the Rocco Forte Sicilian Open title and has won on Northern Irish soil on the Challenge Tour, was a shot back on seven under.
The 2016 Masters Champion Danny Willett was among those two shots back on six under, while 23-time European Tour winner Lee Westwood was on his own on five under. Shane Lowry, meanwhile, enters the weekend six shots off the pace, Rory McIlroy carded a one over 73 for a one under total and Graeme McDowell and Paul Dunne will also both be around for the weekend, on level par and one over respectively.
Erik Van Rooyen
“The 18th was just the cherry on the cake today. I hit it beautifully, tee to green all day, and obviously I holed a few nice putts including one long one on my back nine. I’m playing very nicely.
“You can be aggressive and go with drivers. For me it’s been a bit of a mix between the two. There are some holes where I really just want to be in the fairway and just lay up short of the bunkers to give myself a shot from the fairway even if it’s far back.
“It was a fantastic first nine, straight out of the blocks, birdie on one and holes a nice bunker shot on six which was great after a poor shot after the tee. I kept it going, calm on the back nine and then nice to finish with two birdies. I’m a happy man.
“It’s exciting to lead at a Rolex Series event and leading here too. I haven’t played too much links golf, only the Dunhill Links and now this so I’m fairly new to it but I love it. It’s going to be a great weekend.”
“It's probably my first time in one of these events being right up there. Probably leading or going to be in the last group, which is going to be a nice experience tomorrow. It's all wind dependent around this course. That brings a lot of those bunkers into play and you have to lay back on them.
“That's the great thing about links golf, you can play a different golf course every day, hit different clubs all four days, and you know, I'll just see what happens tomorrow. Looks like we're going to get another good day, so I'm looking forward to it.”
“I started not that great. I hit some really bad shots, like on 18, I was lucky to be on the 17th fairway but it's pretty far left. But the putter was pretty warm and it keep me in touch with the scorecard and then I started playing well on the back nine, like the six or seven last holes were very good.
“It’s really exciting to be in this position because I love the crowd, the atmosphere of those Irish people and Scottish people. Like last year, the guys are so great out there, and keep pushing on every holes and I will enjoy that for two more days.”
“We're going to be in nice position. I think the wind is kind of flattening down a little bit. It's been a beautiful couple of days. You can see someone getting to a few ahead but we are still right there and a long, long way to go.
“We need to keep hitting the shots we're trying to hit, progressing and playing nice, and enjoy what links golf gives you. It's going to give you a few bad bounces, bad breaks, bad lies, but at the same time you might get a few cheeky knocks off the side of some of these banks and kind of do good from it. You have to take everything on the chin and stay patient.”
“I’m a little bit frustrated. Just two poor tee shots on the last two holes and just put myself out of position. It was hard to make par from there. Felt like I hit the ball okay again today. It's definitely going in the right direction. Didn't hole anything, really, again. Held a nice one for birdie on six but that was really it. I finished out okay. Going to have to hit it closer and hole a few over the weekend if I want to have a chance.”
Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, Ballyliffin GC (Glashedy Links, Par 72)
Third round tee-times
- 07:11 Ford, Rock;
- 07:20 Hebert, Sullivan;
- 07:29 Drysdale, Guerrier;
- 07:38 Dredge, Bland;
- 07:47 Pieters, Dunne;
- 07:56 Romero, Dodt
- 08:05 Brooks, Larrazábal;
- 08:19 Warren, Gouveia;
- 08:28 Hanson, Stone;
- 08:37 Saddier, McDowell;
- 08:46 Porteous, Ramsay;
- 08:55 Bjørn, Manassero;
- 09:04 Aiken, Fichardt;
- 09:13 Wattel, Wang;
- 09:27 Bourdy, Ormsby;
- 09:36 Choi, Kjeldsen;
- 09:45 Horsey, Rahm;
- 09:54 Frittelli, Otaegui;
- 10:03 Jamieson, Southgate;
- 10:12 Dantorp, Morrison;
- 10:26 Aguilar, Rai;
- 10:35 Jaidee, Elvira;
- 10:44 Suri, McIlroy;
- 10:53 Sterne, Thornton;
- 11:02 Paratore, Fisher;
- 11:11 Colsaerts, Ilonen;
- 11:25 Fernandez - Castaño, Coetzee;
- 11:35 Lowry, Björk;
- 11:45 Waring, Wood;
- 11:55 Chesters, Miyazato;
- 12:05 Jacquelin, Campillo;
- 12:15 Nixon, Olesen;
- 12:30 Bezuidenhout, Burmester;
- 12:40 Uihlein, Knox;
- 12:50 Horsfield, Westwood;
- 13:00 Lombard, Willett;
- 13:10 Van Rooyen, Lagergren;
- 13:20 Pavon, Fox
136 R Fox (Nzl) 67 69, E Van Rooyen (RSA) 71 65, M Pavon (Fra) 68 68,
137 J Lagergren (Swe) 69 68,
138 S Horsfield (Eng) 69 69, Z Lombard (RSA) 70 68, D Willett (Eng) 68 70,
139 L Westwood (Eng) 68 71,
140 P Uihlein (USA) 70 70, C Bezuidenhout (RSA) 72 68, R Knox (Sco) 71 69,
141 Y Miyazato (Jpn) 69 72, C Wood (Eng) 70 71, D Burmester (RSA) 71 70, M Nixon (Eng) 72 69, R Jacquelin (Fra) 71 70, T Olesen (Den) 72 69, J Campillo (Esp) 70 71, A Chesters (Eng) 68 73,
142 R Paratore (Ita) 75 67, O Fisher (Eng) 74 68, A Björk (Swe) 69 73, Shane Lowry (Irl) 72 70, Simon Thornton (Irl) 72 70, G Coetzee (RSA) 71 71, N Colsaerts (Bel) 72 70, P Waring (Eng) 71 71, G Fernandez - Castaño (Esp) 71 71, M Ilonen (Fin) 70 72,
143 S Jamieson (Sco) 69 74, T Jaidee (Tha) 73 70, J Dantorp (Swe) 72 71, D Horsey (Eng) 74 69, J Morrison (Eng) 73 70, W Ormsby (Aus) 70 73, S Kjeldsen (Den) 70 73, J Suri (USA) 76 67, A Otaegui (Esp) 69 74, M Southgate (Eng) 72 71, R Sterne (RSA) 75 68, J Choi (Kor) 69 74, J Rahm (Esp) 74 69, D Frittelli (RSA) 69 74, Rory McIlroy (Nir) 70 73, N Elvira (Esp) 69 74, A Rai (Eng) 72 71, F Aguilar (Chi) 72 71,
144 M Warren (Sco) 70 74, J Wang (Kor) 74 70, R Gouveia (Por) 73 71, R Wattel (Fra) 72 72, Graeme McDowell (Nir) 71 73, G Bourdy (Fra) 71 73, H Porteous (RSA) 73 71, P Hanson (Swe) 71 73, B Stone (RSA) 74 70, M Manassero (Ita) 72 72, T Bjørn (Den) 73 71, R Ramsay (Sco) 70 74, A Saddier (Fra) 68 76, T Aiken (RSA) 71 73, D Fichardt (RSA) 72 72,
145 D Drysdale (Sco) 76 69, C Ford (Eng) 73 72, P Larrazábal (Esp) 74 71, A Bland (Aus) 76 69, B Dredge (Wal) 72 73, A Sullivan (Eng) 73 72, A Romero (Arg) 70 75, T Pieters (Bel) 73 72, A Dodt (Aus) 74 71, Paul Dunne (Irl) 73 72, B Hebert (Fra) 72 73, J Guerrier (Fra) 76 69, R Rock (Eng) 68 77, D Brooks (Eng) 74 71,
146 Pádraig Harrington (Irl) 68 78, C Paisley (Eng) 72 74, M Korhonen (Fin) 74 72, E Pepperell (Eng) 76 70, C Shinkwin (Eng) 75 71, E Molinari (Ita) 76 70, Gavin Moynihan (Irl) 73 73, P Khongwatmai (Tha) 72 74, S Brown (Eng) 74 72, R Bland (Eng) 74 72, F Zanotti (Par) 73 73, H Tanihara (Jpn) 71 75, Ruaidhri McGee (Irl) 72 74, M Lorenzo-Vera (Fra) 75 71,
147 R Cho (Kor) 74 73, J Kruyswijk (RSA) 72 75, N Bertasio (Ita) 80 67, Evans ( eng) 70 77, M Baldwin (Eng) 72 75, A Pavan (Ita) 74 73, M Kinhult (Swe) 77 70, M Schwab (Aut) 71 76, S Hend (Aus) 78 69, L Slattery (Eng) 73 74, Paul McGinley (Irl) 73 74, Cormac Sharvin (Nir) 73 74, J Winther (Den) 73 74, R Cabrera Bello (Esp) 76 71, K Aphibarnrat (Tha) 73 74, M Kieffer (Ger) 75 72, M Foster (Eng) 77 70, G Green (Mas) 73 74,
148 S Chawrasia (Ind) 73 75, D Howell (Eng) 73 75, A Connelly (Can) 75 73, Colm Moriarty (Irl) 73 75, L Bjerregaard (Den) 75 73, C Sordet (Fra) 74 74, S Sharma (Ind) 74 74, J Smith (Eng) 73 75,
149 O Farr (Wal) 77 72, S Gros (Fra) 75 74, H Li (Chn) 73 76, C Blomstrand (Swe) 77 72, T Detry (Bel) 74 75, N Geyger (Chi) 75 74, C Syme (Sco) 72 77, G Havret (Fra) 76 73, A Quiros (Esp) 75 74, B Neil (Sco) 79 70, D Lipsky (USA) 73 76, B Rumford (Aus) 78 71,
150 S Brazel (Aus) 77 73, J Scrivener (Aus) 73 77, L Gagli (Ita) 72 78, D Im (USA) 80 70, M Siem (Ger) 73 77,
151 Darren Clarke (Nir) 75 76, Cian McNamara (Irl) 76 75,
152 L Canter (Eng) 75 77, Neil O'Briain (Irl) 78 74, M Fitzpatrick (Eng) 77 75, A Levy (Fra) 80 72, C Pigem (Esp) 75 77,
153 R Karlsson (Swe) 76 77, M Wallace (Eng) 80 73,
154 S Fernandez (Esp) 75 79,
155 T Pulkkanen (Fin) 77 78, P Oriol (Esp) 78 77, L Jensen (Den) 79 76, J Walters (RSA) 75 80,
156 S Gallacher (Sco) 78 78, S Lee (Kor) 78 78,
158 J Norris (Aus) 82 76,
159 C Koepka (USA) 78 81,
** M Fraser (Aus) 76 RT, H Sturehed (Swe) 80 WD, A Wu (Chn) 73 DQ, T Immelman (RSA) 71 DQ, C Hanson (Eng) RT 0,