Inspired Lowry has game to be 'El Hombre'
SERGIO GARCIA hopes to stir his fellow countrymen into a frenzy by becoming Spain's first winner at Valderrama.
He's not having it all his own way, however, as Shane Lowry and Peter Lawrie have given locals a splendid Irish tongue-twister to grapple with by forcing their way into contention at the Andalucia Masters.
Clara native Lowry (23) and Lawrie, (37) from Castleknock, were in top-class company on one-over-par after the most gruelling 36 holes of golf played on the European Tour this season.
That left them sharing sixth place with Thomas Bjorn, Justin Rose and Peter Hanson, among others -- six off the stunning pace set by Aberdeen's Richie Ramsey on five-under, but just two shy of born-again Garcia, who many expect to be 'El Hombre' tomorrow evening.
After romping away with the Tour equivalent of his own testimonial in Castellon last week, Garcia faced a much sterner test of his confidence and composure this week as he tried to win back-to-back titles for the first time on Tour.
So far, he's handled it with aplomb, posting two steady rounds of 70 in conditions which transformed this classic course into a scowling ogre.
Garcia confessed yesterday that few experiences could be "more enjoyable" than marching up the 18th in front of family, friends and neighbours last Sunday to an 11-stroke victory, his first in three angst-ridden years
Yet, without any doubt, the man crowned champion on the Costa del Sol tomorrow evening inevitably will leave Valderrama with a special sense of accomplishment.
So tough was the challenge of a wind-blown first two days on the tightest fairways and fastest greens in Europe, just four men beat par, Ramsay, Gregory Havret of France, Garcia and that iron-man of Andalucia, Miguel Angel Jimenez.
Meanwhile, the cut fell at seven-over-par, highest by three this season, with Damian McGrane, Gareth Maybin and Paul Cutler failing to make the top-50 and ties.
Defending champion Graeme McDowell refused to raise the white flag after a second successive round of 73 left him in 21st place on four over, saying: "I'm not out of it by any means. I know my way around here and all I need to do is shoot two low rounds at the weekend.
"I swung it a lot better today," he added, but McDowell performed poorly on the super-quick greens, three-putting from six feet at the sixth and from 26 feet at the seventh and missing from inside four feet for par at 15.
With every respect to the Portrush man and ever-steady Lawrie, who shot 73 yesterday, Lowry's superlative touch around the greens probably establishes him as Ireland's best hope of holding on to this title.
"My short game is on fire," he said soon after chipping-in for birdie from greenside rough at the last for a round of 71, which also featured a stunning pitch-in from 50 yards for birdie at the second.
Lowry had five birdies and five bogeys on his card and looked as if he could get up and down from a litter bin, which is crucial in conditions like these.
And as he proved with his sensational run into fourth place in May's BMW PGA at Wentworth, Lowry is inspired, not cowed, by the big occasion and he loves putting on fast greens, evidenced by the stunning 30-footer he 'tickled-in' for par at 17.
Also important is the usual, easy temperament, which helped him win the Irish Open as an amateur in 2009 and was seen on the ninth hole yesterday as Lowry laughed-off an ugly shank with his eight-iron, made a decent bogey and then landed a sweet birdie at 10.
Sadly, Paul McGinley's litany of injury woes continued at Valderrama as the Dubliner sustained a ligament injury to his right wrist which is likely to bring his year on Tour to a premature end.
Further fitness issues are the last thing the 44-year-old needs as he tries to back-up his impressive bid for the 2014 Ryder Cup captaincy at Gleneagles by remaining competitive on the European Tour.
So, Dubliner McGinley was relieved when X-rays in a Malaga hospital yesterday revealed his wrist was not fractured.
However, doctors have advised at least three to four weeks rest, so he's likely to draw a line under 2011, bring forward an operation he requires on his right knee and, hopefully, resume with a clean bill of health in the New Year.
"It does look like my season is over, though nothing's set in stone," he said.
"I'll have an MRI scan when I get back to London and talk it over with my doctors at home," explained McGinley who damaged his wrist playing a shot out of the rough at Valderrama's fourth hole on Thursday.
McGinley defiantly played on through the pain barrier and signed for a first round 79 before officially withdrawing from the tournament yesterday morning.
Valderrama was the scene of his greatest career victory at the Volvo Masters in 2005, but he's struggled with a series of knee injuries since then.
Specialists told McGinley in the summer that he'd require cartilage surgery on his right knee (his second) during the close season, having already had six operations on his left knee.
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