Sizzling McGinley has bit between his teeth
PAUL McGINLEY has given his confidence a turbo-boost going into the biggest Irish Open for decades.
McGinley ensured his road to Royal Portrush would be paved with promise as he fired off a fantastic 66 in foul weather on a dramatic final day at the BMW International in Cologne.
It was the perfect riposte to the 77 on Saturday which wrecked the 45-year-old Dubliner's prospects of a first European Tour victory in seven years.
By posting the low round yesterday, McGinley propelled himself into a three-way tie for third, just one outside a two-man play-off won by Sheffield's Danny Willett.
Across the Atlantic in Connecticut, Padraig Harrington slid out of contention at the Travelers Championship with a final round of one-under 69 at TPC River Highlands.
After four rounds in the 60s, the Dubliner tied 11th on 10-over, four shy of the clubhouse lead set early yesterday by Australian Marc Leishman (28), who stormed to his first PGA Tour win with a superb closing 62.
On a day when Hunter Mahan posted a career-low 61, Harrington lost the sharp scoring edge so obvious during Saturday's 65. Yet the 40-year-old, fourth at last week's US Open, still heads for Portrush after some confidence-boosting golf.
The son of a vicar, Willett (24) had all his prayers answered as he beat Marcus Fraser on the fourth tie hole, the Aussie missing a five-foot par putt that would have sent them back to the 18th tee at Gut Larchenhof for a fifth time.
A team-mate of Rory McIlroy at the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal Co Down, Willett is famous throughout golf for his sunny disposition. Yet even his patience was tested as a string of injuries over the past 18 months extended his quest for that elusive first professional victory.
One ahead overnight, Willett stretched his lead to three with back-to-back birdies at three and four but then surrendered his advantage with a three-putt bogey at nine and further dropped shots at 11 and 15.
However, Fraser (33), already a two-time winner on Tour, left a window open when he bogeyed 18 for a final-round 71.
Needing four at the last to remain on 11-under and force the tournament into sudden death, Willett produced a fabulous par save from under the trees right of the final fairway for a closing 73.
The extra holes were intense. Fraser sank a 12-footer to keep his hopes alive at the first, while Willett failed to apply a coup de grace from four feet at the second.
When the Englishman went within a whisker of sinking his chip from the back rough on the fourth tie hole, his opponent's 40-foot birdie putt across the green careened off the right lip to five feet. Fraser missed the one back, leaving Willett a tap-in for victory.
McGinley was delighted after a superb final round, which earned the Ryder Cup legend €103,333, his biggest cheque in four years. "That's three top-10s in the last four tournaments," he said. "It's a long time since I've done that.
"It's great to go to Portrush in good form," added McGinley, one of 26 Irish players in the field for a tournament which has shattered European Tour records with 130,000 tickets sold in advance.
It promises to be a massive tournament and McGinley enthused: "I'm looking forward a lot to the Irish Open. The Dunluce is one of my favourite courses in all the world.
"Conditions today were not easy. It was a difficult breeze but I like the wind. Hopefully it's going to be breezy in Portrush too. There's a good chance that it will."
McGinley opened with a 65 last Thursday; shared the lead after a 70 on Friday but was perplexed by Saturday's performance, saying: "I don't think I've ever had five three-putts in a round of golf before.
"I lost my speed on the greens and lost my confidence but it was a good reaction to come back and shoot the score I did today," he explained.
In recent seasons, McGinley has been stymied by chronic knee injuries but complete rest over the winter, followed by a light playing schedule in the spring led to a dramatic recent form surge.
With €286,916 banked in eight events in 2012, he leapfrogged compatriot Damien McGrane into 45th in Europe's Race to Dubai.
Kells man McGrane earned €10,400 in a share of 44th place on one-under yesterday after closing with a level-par 72, while the only other Irishman to make the cut, Simon Thornton, shot 73 and picked up €6,500 in a share of 54th place on two-over.