Rory desperate to get one up on Willett with Race To Dubai in mind
Did you hear the one about the Scotsman, the Englishman, and the Irishman?
No, it's not a joke. It's the top of the leaderboard in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, and Marc Warren, Danny Willett and Rory McIlroy won't be playing for laughs in the third round at The K Club today.
Money - €666,660 for the winner - is up for grabs this weekend.
Ryder Cup and Race To Dubai points are on the table.
Pride also comes into the equation, as McIlroy and Willett vie for the number one spot in Europe.
Each of these marquee players in this tournament has something the other covets.
Willett beat McIlroy to the Masters Green Jacket, the only Major that the Belfast boy has yet to win, while the Sheffield-born pride of Yorkshire sets a hot pace in pursuit of McIlroy's order of merit crown.
This is not quite a grudge match yet, but with Warren and Willett leading the Irish Open at eight-under after 36 holes, and the tournament host tucked in just a shot behind them, the intensity has ramped up nicely.
McIlroy, who carded 70 yesterday, is quietly stoked up enough for this tournament, but he and Willett are eyeing each other up ahead of the third round 'moving day' in which the players jockey for position to strike for home tomorrow.
"I don't think I need any extra incentive. 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.
"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 weekend to try and catch up on him," said McIlroy.
Willett also took on a question about the likelihood of a shoot-out with the world number three.
"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," said Willett after a 71, six shots worse than his 65 on Thursday.
Warren's 66, after an opening 70, was the best round of the day until fellow Scot Russell Knox also shot six-under late in the afternoon to get to three-under par.
Warren, 35, has won three times on Tour since turning pro in 2002, and has missed the cut six times in his nine European Tour events so far this season.
"I felt, especially the last three events, two in China and Spain, as if I was close to some decent form.
"But the schedule this year feels as if I've been stop-start a lot.
"I'm not in the top 50 in the world, and I haven't got into the events in America to fill in some of the down time we have on the European Tour, so I feel I was more rusty than anything else. On this golf course, in these conditions, to shoot something in the mid-60s, you've got to be really on your game, and I feel as if I was today.
"Finishing with three birdies in the last four holes adds a little shine to it; I'd have taken pars coming in," said Warren.
Weather predictions proved accurate. The heavy rain rolled in on Thursday morning and Friday afternoon. Thursday pm, and Friday morning - windy, but dry. No complaints there from the pace-setters, especially McIlroy.
"I just about remembered my wet gear whenever I was packing in Florida to go to The Players and then over here. It's the Irish Open. It's in May. The weather can be very changeable over here at this time of year. I knew it was a possibility.
"I got lucky with the draw. I took advantage of that, which was nice, and it's an even playing field over the next couple of days.
"I feel like I'm prepared to play in whatever comes our way," he said.
The key for McIlroy now is to cut out the few little errors which have trimmed the edge off an otherwise all-round, solid performance.
A huge roar which hailed his 12-foot birdie putt on the 9th hole, McIlroy's 18th, contrasted with the collective "ooooh" of disappointment from the gallery on the par-3 3rd hole, his 12th, when he dragged a four-footer outside the cup for a wasteful bogey.
"I was trying to stay as patient as possible, and I think I was rewarded with the putt on the last.
"I made six birdies today, I made six birdies yesterday, I just made a few too many bogeys today, and that's why the score was a little bit higher.
"I played well. I drove the ball well again, I hit a lot of good iron shots, good wedge shots.
"It's just that whenever I missed a couple of greens I didn't get it up and down. There were a couple of soft bogeys in there.
"I want to try and make sure I don't do that over the weekend, but I know I'm making enough birdies to win this tournament," said McIlroy.
England's Matthew Southgate shot 69 for solo fourth position on five-under par. A survivor of testicular cancer, Southgate, 27, admits he still finds it difficult to keep his cool on the course.
"I still get extremely angry with myself on the golf course, which I think is only natural.
"We play the most frustrating game that's ever been. If I hit a bad shot and miss the green and don't curse myself a bit, there's something wrong.
"I'm dealing with it slightly better, but I still do get up yet, yeah," he said.
At one stage Southgate looked likely to at least join McIlroy on seven-under, with a possibility of edging his way to eight-under, but he had no complaints.
"I'd have bitten your hand off at the start obviously. I played some great stuff out there. We definitely got the wrong side of the draw there.
"I feel like the last few weeks on the Tour have been in tough weather, so I'm not surprised that I've played well, but I'm chuffed to be out there," he said.
South Africans Jaco Van Zyl and Richard Sterne, and England's Tyrell Hatton, on four-under, could yet have a say in the destination of this title.
Dubai Duty Free Irish Open
Live, RTÉ 2/Sky Sports 4, 1pm
AT&T Byron Nelson Classic
Live, Sky Sports 4, 6.30pm