Harrington and McDowell gear up for high-flying Fota finish
Forget about those Sumatran Tigers in the neighbouring Wildlife Park!
For thrills and roars, one need look no further than the Irish Open at Fota Island this weekend as three of Ireland's golfing tigers try to earn their stripes in a gripping climax to their national championship.
Major champions Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington plus laid-back Ulsterman Gareth Maybin figure prominently among the players breathing down the neck of leader Mikko Ilonen of Finland and the prospect of a home victory will ensure the Deerpark Course is packed to the treetops over the next two days.
McDowell, just two off the lead in a share of second on eight-under with England's Robert Rock and Romain Wattel of France, is bookies' favourite, and rightly so according to Harrington.
Much seems to be going in McDowell's favour, not least his penchant for winning national open championships. The Portrush man counts no fewer than five among his dozen professional victories – the Scottish, Welsh, French, Italian and, most famously of all, the 2010 US Open.
Evidence that McDowell may now be ready to overcome the unique pressure and expectations which so far have denied him a real opportunity to win at home came during a superb second-round 66.
Ominously for his rivals, G-Mac, revitalised after several good nights' sleep since last weekend's US Open, compared playing Fota Island to "a walk in the park" after four punishing days at Pinehurst No 2.
Yet Harrington (42) has won an Irish Open, his breakthrough win at Adare Manor in 2007 inspiring the Dubliner's thrilling run of three Major championship successes and, revered like an adopted son in his late father Paddy's home county, he'll be roared on by the Cork masses.
Rounds of 69 and yesterday's 67 have propelled Harrington into a share of eighth on six-under with his Ryder Cup team-mate at Celtic Manor in 2010, Edoardo Molinari, and Maybin (30), whose uninhibited approach during a second-round 65 suggests this Ballyclare native may be in the mood to claim his first European Tour title.
Yet there's something about Harrington's performance so far this week and his carefree demeanour which suggests he's nearing the end of a long, dark win drought on the European Tour that stretches back to the 2008 US PGA Championship.
The 42-year-old showed unmistakeable signs of revival as he scooted into contention over the first 36 holes at the recent Byron Nelson and FedEx St Jude Championships in the States.
Yet the fresh air of confidence about his play over the past two days, especially his short game, suggests he may at last be ready to take this form into the weekend. "I'm not in a bad place with my game, I'm happy with what I'm seeing on the greens which is bringing momentum," he said.
"I've been showing some form and am happy with things of late," added Harrington, though he admitted: "I've not been carrying it through and it doesn't look good when you don't carry it through.
"However, I've a few ideas that I'll bring into the weekend and the only way I can try them out is to get myself under pressure, which I'm going to be, so I'm looking forward to it."
Harrington certainly expects to be inspired by the atmosphere. "Yeah, definitely, you do get a number of moments out there where you enjoy the extra buzz of the crowds," he said. "It happens a lot of times, especially near the end, when they cheer you on to greens and most of the day today I wasn't really in trouble, so I actually could enjoy it a bit more."
The loudest roar at Fota Island yesterday was reserved for 21-year-old amateur Gary Hurley of West Waterford. Hurley was followed by hundreds of friends and relatives who'd travelled literally in busloads and rewarded them by holing a monster 50-foot birdie putt at the last to seal a second-round 66 which he'll remember for the rest of his life.
It's surprising the leaves were left on any nearby trees, given the percussive shock of the crowd's reaction as that putt dropped.
"I've never experienced anything like that in my life, the atmosphere was incredible," said the student, a member of the Paddy Harrington Golf Scholarship Scheme at NUI Maynooth.
"I will always cherish today," added Hurley, who landed the only eagle in Thursday's opening round and yesterday had six birdies and just one bogey on his card as he soared into a share of 16th place on four-under.
One of 25 players who went into the weekend within six strokes of the tournament lead, the youngster, who is staying at home in Waterford this week, went on: "I can't wait for the weekend and to get out there.
"I'll try and keep calm. A certain amateur won it in 2009 and that will inspire me. I will go out and enjoy it," he said in reference to Shane Lowry, who sensationally won that year's rain-doused Irish Open at Baltray as an amateur.
Sadly, Lowry was left cursing his luck yesterday after missing the cut by the narrowest of margins for the fifth time this season.
Hurley alone, of the four amateurs representing the GUI, made it through to the weekend, while John Kelly, a teaching pro at St Margaret's, is the lone survivor of eight Irish Region PGA qualifiers after back-to-back rounds of even-par 71.
With every respect to three-time Tour winner Ilonen, who shot a course-record 64 on Thursday and is bidding to join Lowry and Harrington as one of only three golfers to win the West of Ireland Amateur Championship and the Irish Open, McDowell's the man to beat.
"I'm just surprised and excited to be in contention in an Irish Open really," G-Mac enthused, referring to his lack-lustre record in 12 previous visits to this championship. "I'm having some fun with it. I'm looking forward to the weekend.
"Of course, the Irish Open brings its own pressure and expectation level but it's less than last week in Pinehurst and I think that's probably the big factor form me.
"Last week bordered on the unenjoyable because the golf course was so frustratingly difficult but it's hard not to kind of enjoy yourself this week," added McDowell.
"You've got so many great fans out there and a much more user-friendly golf course. I've played in front of many big crowds before but none as passionate as the Irish crowd.
"There's nothing quite like it when a crowd's pulling for you. It's something I've only experienced before at a Ryder Cup and I'm looking forward to it.
"This is my type of course from the point of view it's not that long, you've got to drive it in the fairway (which he's been doing with near unerring accuracy this week with a back-up driver he's pressed into service)
"I can hang with anybody around here, where power is useful but accuracy is huge and it's fun to get some short irons in my hand," he said. "I'd say if I got half a dozen short irons in my hands at Pinehurst, that's it, but my wedge play is quite sharp this week."
McDowell, who also happens to be a demon putter, has that lean and hugry look entering the weekend as he seeks his first win of the season.
Irish Open diary
Crowds flock to Fota
Bumper crowds flocked to Fota for yesterday's second round of the Irish Open. A whopping 24,151 were lured outdoors in Co Cork by the prospect of watching Europe's finest golfers perform in blazing sunshine.
Only once before have so many turned up for the second round at the Irish Open, when 27,914 crammed into Royal Portrush on Friday in 2012.
In total, 40,329 people attended the first 36 holes of this year's event. Including the 6,921 who turned up for Wednesday's Pro-Am, that's 47,250.
With Irishmen Graeme McDowell, Gareth Maybin and Padraig Harrington in contention, the Irish Open should once again surpass the European Tour's showpiece BMW PGA at Wentworth (which last month drew 93,413 over five days).
Snap happy fans
Whoops! Thinking Shane Lowry had found his ball in the trees to the right of 18, playing companion Paul Casey picked up the Clara man's 'provisional' in the fairway. A referee was called and the ball was replaced under rule 18-4. There was no penalty. Lowry found several balls in the undergrowth, though not his own.
"Probably should have been able to find it because there were a couple of hundred people there," said the Irishman.
"Yet there were only a few of us looking for it really. People spent more time taking pictures than looking for the ball."
'Sad' news for English
There was no sanctuary for the English, even in the official recorder's area. A notice on the window read: "The England team visited an orphanage in Brazil today. 'It's heartbreaking to see their sad little faces with no hope,' said Jose, aged six."
Rock right at home
Robert Rock, beaten in extra-time by Shane Lowry at Baltray, has enjoyed a special rapport with Irish fans since that tumultuous day in 2009, when the Offaly man, then an amateur, was urged to a sensational sudden-death success by hordes of excited fellow countymen.
"I do enjoy the reception I receive over here . It's quite cool," said Rock. "Not so much that particular day but maybe they feel sorry for me, that they gave me such a hard time, they're all quite nice now."
Rock, tied for the lead at Fota, also coaches golf and has been following two of the star pupils at his Lichfield academy, Amy Boulden of Wales and Scot Kelsey Macdonald in the Women's US Open.
Quote of the day
"I think golf's gone very technology and science-based, it can wreck your head. You've all these track-man devices, different shafts and swing gurus. I must have seen 20 different coaches expecting somebody to have the answer. Ultimately, I think the answer lies in me." – Ulsterman Gareth Maybin after his sweet 65 yesterday.
Number of the day
7 - A nightmare quadruple-bogey at the 165-yard third hole knocked the stuffing out of Marcel Siem. The German hit two balls into the water at this teasing par three. Siem, a real contender after Thursday's 66, found himself eight off the pace on two-under after yesterday's 74.
IRISH OPEN, LIVE, RTE2, 12.50 & SKY SPORTS 4, 12.30