Harrington back to best -- McDowell
IRISH golf has savoured many great moments in recent years, but no amount of success at Major Championships and Ryder Cups could lessen the spine-tingling impact of several moments borrowed from heaven yesterday.
All afternoon, 29,914 spectators who'd crowded the fairway ropes through rain and sun, ferried Padraig Harrington, their own Graeme McDowell and defending Irish Open champion Simon Dyson around the links on a wave of applause.
Yet it reached tsunami proportions at 18, when McDowell and Harrington, beaming with bonhomie and strutting his stuff once again like a true, three-time Major-champ, marched onto the final green.
This thunderous greeting soon would be followed by a deafening roar when McDowell holed a 12-foot putt for birdie.
It didn't matter that the final stroke of his second-round 68 left McDowell tied 23rd on five-under with, among others, Rory McIlroy and Paul McGinley.
Even Dyson was so carried away by this emotion-charged moment, he leapt forward to embrace McDowell, heartily clapping him on the back. Such scenes are usually reserved for Sunday at golf tournaments -- but the 2012 Irish Open is different.
Harrington actually is the man McDowell and other close observers of the first 36-holes of this history-making event believe most likely to step forward this weekend and claim a second Irish Open title.
After four years scrabbling in scorched earth for the form and confidence which carried him to three Major titles in 13 months, Harrington had the aura of a champion once again as back-to-back rounds of 67 propelled him to within two strokes of Frenchman Gregory Bourdy's lead at halfway.
Never mind the prospect of Portrush someday staging the British Open, McDowell believes the Irish can dominate next month's Open at Royal Lytham and St Anne's, with Harrington topping his list of contenders.
"I don't want to put any pressure on the fella in green there," he said, nodding towards the 40-year-old Dubliner. "But I think he's back to his best. He's really impressed me for the last couple of days. Obviously, Rory's not a bad player and I feel like I am playing well," McDowell went on.
"Not taking anything away from the rest of the lads, I think myself, Rory and Padraig have outstanding chances of winning the Open Championship this year.
These heady words were in part provoked by the adrenaline which coursed through McDowell's veins for much of yesterday afternoon as he recovered from a couple of setbacks early in his second round to copper-fasten his place at the weekend.
"Plenty of people in this crowd, family and friends, would definitely have given me a lot of abuse this evening if I'd missed the cut," he confessed with a knowing smile.
There was emotion in McDowell's voice as he spoke of his pride in the tumultuous welcome his home town has given this Irish Open. Especially after he, McIlroy and Clarke had pressed so hard to bring the event to Portrush.
The suffocating pressure on Northern Ireland's three Major Champions this week was evident when McIlroy responded with a sincere "thank God" after one interviewer opened with the words "well, you've made the cut ... "
McIlroy struggled to find the pace and line of his putts on greens slowed by heavy rain, but his general play, especially during yesterday's 69, was close to that which has established the 23-year-old as the most exciting player in golf.
After a couple of morale-sapping months in which he missed four cuts in five tournaments, surrendered his US Open crown and pride of place at the top of the world, McIlroy is beginning to reap dividends from recent remedial work with swing coach Michael Bannon.
"Definitely I'm close," he said. "I feel I've made a couple of big strides forward since the US Open.
"What really left me those last few weeks was ball-striking, something I usually do well," McIlroy added. "So it's just trying to get back to making my strengths as strong as possible."
One shot McIlroy played yesterday into the teeth of the wind on the par four seventh hole spoke chapters for his development as a player for all seasons.
The 155-yard six-iron he sent burrowing through the firm sea breeze to five feet, setting up a fabulous birdie on this gruelling par-four, must silence anyone foolish enough to suggest this guy cannot play in the wind.
"That's probably the best shot I hit all day," he confirmed. "To have the ball under control like that is something I'm working on. A shot like that gives me the confidence to know I can play well.
Asked if he could have played it a year ago, McIlroy went on: "No, probably not. I would probably have tried to hit a hard seven in there and drive it low instead of smoothing it like that and taking a bit of the spin off.
"I was working on it at the start of the week with Michael, trying to control it a bit more with my body turn," he said, adding with no little significance, given last year's controversy in Sandwich: "It's something that I've been working on for Lytham."
McIlroy believes it will require two rounds of 66 for him (or McDowell and a resurgent McGinley) to win this weekend.
Ballymoney's links specialist Michael Hoey, one of the most impressive of the 11 'home' players to make the cut on seven-under after a 67 yesterday, believed 71-71 would be enough for him if the wind gets up.
Mark Murphy (34) from Kerry, via New Orleans, was the day's most dramatic qualifier, scraping through on two-under, thanks to a spectacular eagle at nine, the final hole of his second round 73. He hit driver and a three-wood to 12 feet before bravely draining putt he knew he needed to make for survival.
With respect to Bourdy, the dominant figure at Royal Portrush was Harrington and the powerful rapport he's formed with the vast crowd is likely to carry him to the finish in his sixth tournament in seven weeks.
Harrington said of yesterday's round: "It was quite a comfortable 67 in the conditions. I did nothing out of the ordinary and didn't have too much stress out there. I know there's a lot of golf to be played, but I feel quite nice going into the weekend."
Now that sounds like the Harrington of old.
Irish Open, Day 3
Live, RTE1/Sky Sports 1, 1.30