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Fota in frame for 2016 as McDowell leads home charge

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Graeme McDowell lines up a putt on the 18th hole during day three of the Irish Open at Fota Island, Cork. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Graeme McDowell lines up a putt on the 18th hole during day three of the Irish Open at Fota Island, Cork. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

A view of the Irish Open trophy as Padraig Harrington watches his drive off the first tee during day three of the Irish Open at Fota Island. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

A view of the Irish Open trophy as Padraig Harrington watches his drive off the first tee during day three of the Irish Open at Fota Island. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Edoardo Molinari watches his putt on the fourth green during day three of the Irish Openat Fota Island. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Edoardo Molinari watches his putt on the fourth green during day three of the Irish Openat Fota Island. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Graeme McDowell plays his second shot to the ninth green during day three of the Irish Open at Fota Island. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Graeme McDowell plays his second shot to the ninth green during day three of the Irish Open at Fota Island. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Padraig Harrington lines up a putt on the second green during day three of the Irish Open at Fota Island. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Padraig Harrington lines up a putt on the second green during day three of the Irish Open at Fota Island. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Simon Khan watches his shot off the third tee box during day three of the Irish Open at Fota Island. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Simon Khan watches his shot off the third tee box during day three of the Irish Open at Fota Island. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Romain Wattel watches his second shot from the trees onto the fourth fairway during day three of the Irish Open at Fota Island. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Romain Wattel watches his second shot from the trees onto the fourth fairway during day three of the Irish Open at Fota Island. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

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Graeme McDowell lines up a putt on the 18th hole during day three of the Irish Open at Fota Island, Cork. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

The prospect of an Irish Open return to Fota Island in 2016 was greatly enhanced yesterday when 28,173 spectators, in buoyant mood, reflected yet another day of delightful weather.

It certainly gave cause for optimism among European Tour officials after talks with the Kang family, owners of the resort.

“The family expressed the wish to grow the relationship with the Tour,” said James Finnegan, commercial director of the Irish Open.

Familiar with the hosts from negotiations for the current staging, he was joined by Tour chief executive, George O’Grady, who was meeting them for the first time.

“We had a very positive discussion regarding this week’s championship and the family clearly appreciate the idea of TV images of the resort being shown around the world,” added Finnegan.

A return to Fota would neatly tie up a scheduling loose end, given the championship’s move back north to Royal Co Down next year and a proposed staging at Lough Erne in 2017.

In the event, the 54-hole lead on 12-under par was claimed by a former West of Ireland Amateur champion. Unfortunately from an Irish perspective, he happened to be the gifted Finn, Mikko Ilonen, who became the first continental European winner of that title at Enniscrone in 1999.

A stroke behind him, Yorkshireman Danny Willett carded a course-record 63 which contained a hole-in-one on the seventh and ended with three successive birdies. Third on his own on 10-under, Graeme McDowell spearheaded an otherwise faltering home challenge at the scene of his first Irish Open 12 years ago, when he was tied 27th for prize money of €14,000.

And with the weather showing off the course’s maturity to excellent effect, the transformation in Fota brought universal acclaim.

“We’ve had a most positive reaction from the players,” said director of golf Kevin Morris. “Pádraig Harrington and Darren Clarke were especially complimentary, having noted the changes since 2002.”

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Especially impressive were the relatively flat, meadowgrass greens which were running at a speed of 11.8 on the Stimpmeter.

Yet impressive approach play failed to deliver the required dividend for McDowell whose missed birdie chance on the 14th green marked several such efforts inside 10 feet.

That was when his caddie, Ken Comboy, intervened by putting his hand on the player’s head, indicating ruinous movement during the putting stroke.

The transformation was almost immediate. After a par on the 15th, McDowell proceeded to hole a 40-footer for birdie on the next and followed that with an 18-footer for another birdie on the short 17th en route to a 69.

“It’s kind of like the Ryder Cup dynamic with all those people pulling for you,” he said afterwards. “I’d dearly love to win, but I’ve got a lot of work to do.”


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