Wednesday 25 April 2018

Howell finds groove to take share of lead at Irish Open

Rory McIlroy and an army of fans anxiously watch his shot from the rough on the ninth hole in Killarney yesterday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene
Rory McIlroy and an army of fans anxiously watch his shot from the rough on the ninth hole in Killarney yesterday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene

David Howell had one of those special feelings in Killarney last year when an opening 64 made him an improbable leader of the Irish Open. With only moderate form since then, the same feeling delivered the same score in yesterday's third round to sweep the 36-year-old back on top, this time within sight of victory as joint-leader on 11-under par.

Having been clear on his own, he was joined late in the afternoon by Australian left-hander, Richard Green, and by Simon Dyson, the leading English finisher in the Open Championship two weeks ago, when he was tied-ninth behind Darren Clarke.

Howell's effort was especially admirable, given his recent history of having plummeted in only four years from ninth to 479th in the world rankings. Now he's 282nd with the chance of a first tournament success since 2006 when he outgunned Tiger Woods to win the HSBC Champions. "I just lost control of the golf ball and before I knew it, my game had disappeared," he said with crushing candour.

"I really love this course," he went on. "I just think it's one of the best we play. But I've always been concerned that it's venues we need as much as golf courses, and this has got both. So I think it's a fantastic place." And he certainly did it justice with an exemplary round containing seven birdies, including a run of four threes from the 10th.

The promise of magical exploits from a quartet of home-grown Major champions produced only the odd flash of brilliance. Instead, from the nine Irish survivors out of an original entry of 28, it was the admirable consistency of Peter Lawrie which dominated their challenge, four strokes off the lead. His 70 was especially admirable in view of an ugly double-bogey on the 13th.

"It's always nice to be able to head into a final round with the chance of putting the pressure on someone else," he said. "My putter is performing well and the greens are okay at the moment. I'm happy enough."

Michael Hoey also carded a double-bogey, but of a decidedly sinister nature. It happened at the short 10th where a champagne bottle is buried containing golf-writers' names -- mine included -- from the launch of the Killeen Course project back in 1969. That was when Hoey's father, Brian, a career banker, mischievously slipped his own name into the bottle as representing the "Coleraine Chronicle", where he happened to be based at the time. Could yesterday's five represent a sin of the father being visited on the son? Interesting thought.

The performance of the day from an Irish perspective, however, was a level-par 71 from reigning West of Ireland and Irish Close champion, Paul Cutler. Particularly creditable was the quality of his finish when the round appeared to be getting away from him after bogeys at the 11th and 12th. Taking full advantage of the reachable, long 16th, he carded an eagle and went on to birdie the last.

Breaks in the stubborn cloud-cover sent beguiling shimmers over the waters of Lough Leane and for the most part the weather remained kind, with the exception of one downpour in the early afternoon.

When lauding its unrivalled, scenic beauty, Lord Castlerosse once said of his native place: "When anyone sees Killarney, even if he is the basest heretic, he must believe in God." And he was spot on when predicting 70 years ago that it would become so successful as a golfing destination that, one day, it would require not one or two but three courses to meet the demand from visitors.

A different sort of golfing demand has had spectators streaming onto the Killeen stretch in record numbers over the last three days. And even under cloudy skies, Killarney presented a perfect setting in which to stage a tournament carrying the Discover Ireland banner.

Yet championship director, Ben Watson, cautioned against notions of a cash bonanza for the European Tour. Average daily figures of 20,000 and a charge of €75.00 for a season ticket would suggest takings of €1.5m. When discounted tickets and complimentaries are taken into account, however, the final tally will be less than half that.

"But we are very happy with the attendance here which is above the average for a European Tour event in these islands," said Watson. And his colleague, tournament director David Probyn, spoke of Killarney's popularity with the players. "It's a course the guys love to play," he said. "The setting is special but they also like the challenge it presents to the better shotmaker, especially off the tee."

Meanwhile, Graeme McDowell was honest enough to admit that he didn't hit the ball often enough in the fairway to earn better than a 72. And after all the tweeting and its attendant controversy, a seriously subdued Rory McIlroy seemed to find no inspiration from his proximity to Howell as a playing partner.

"I probably pushed too hard in trying to get back into the tournament," said McIlroy after he, too, had shot a 72 which began with a double-bogey six at the first where he took two shots to escape from the lakeside hazard.

Finally, it's difficult to question the notion of players for courses, on the evidence of their scores. Hoey finished seventh here last year when Howell's leading challengers at the end of the opening day included Green, who went on to claim a share of fifth place.

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