Wednesday 17 January 2018

Harrington and Fowler blow up in wind

Rickie Fowler suffered a sickening eight, eight finish
Rickie Fowler suffered a sickening eight, eight finish

Dermot Gileece

Wispy clouds covered the summit of Slieve Donard and chilling winds switched to the south-east, as Royal County Down maintained a stubborn resistance in the third round of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open yesterday. Though Pádraig Harrington headed six home qualifiers into the weekend, we yearned in vain for the confidence of old, as a thoroughly dispiriting 78 culminated in four successive fives.

With Denmark's Soren Kjeldsen appearing to relish the punishing test as tournament leader on seven under par, Harrington wasn't alone among those who suffered. After an improbable eagle-two on the 16th, there was the sickening thud of an eight, eight finish for Rickie Fowler.

In such circumstances, the American would probably have been physically ill, had he heard "the course is beyond great - the look of it and its variety . . .," from last week's BMW/PGA champion, Byeong Hun An, after a aparkling 67 which contained a run of birdies from the 11th to the 13th.

Also visibly crushed by his torment, Harrington remained typically courteous. "On a tough day like that, you needed to be able to keep getting it up and down, to keep the momentum going. But I struggled on the greens. That's the way it is."

He added: "The really disappointing bit is that when I came up here six weeks ago, we played in the exact wind that we got today. So it should have been to my liking. The ironic thing is that I wanted a good test and then proceeded to take too many putts. Obviously it's all gone now."

The Dane leads by two strokes from Spain's Rafa Cabrera-Bello and Germany's Maximilian Kieffer in a tie for second place, giving a distinctly Continental flavour to the battle at the top.

Meanwhile, with an impressive 69, Graeme McDowell had the best day of the three Irishmen on three-over-par for the championship. And typically candid, he claimed not to have played well despite three birdies and a lone bogey which came on the menacing little seventh.

"It's tough to consistently hit good shots in these conditions because you're trying to keep the ball low while manufacturing shots, relying on a lot of creativity," he said afterwards. "The strain of doing this, caused me to revert to some bad habits. But on the credit side, a slight adjustment to my set-up this morning allowed me to feel much more solid on the greens.

Freshness seemed to overcome rust, as Paul McGinley carded a level-par 71 to maintain an admirable challenge in only his third tournament of the year. And his first thought had to do with regrets about not having made more regular visits here during his amateur days.

"With a few adjustments here and there, this has the potential to become the best links course in the British Isles," he said. Mind you, he declined to say how he would go about having these modifications made. It could be that he had noted the well-chosen words last week of the 57-year-old course manager, Eamonn Crawford, who remarked: "I have a few ideas about making changes, but I would need a court order to carry them out."

Either way, McGinley was "thrilled to be here at the weekend." And he managed to produce a tidy card in the difficult conditions, with two birdies countering two bogeys. Interestingly, the second bogey came at the 468-yard 15th, which he had failed to reach in practice with two of his Sunday best. On this occasion, however, the problem lay with an errant drive.

Shane Lowry lent further emphasis to the mental conflict a great links continued to create. While he claimed to have played "lovely" golf for a 71, you could sense him attempting to figure out why he wasn't further up the leaderboard. Especially after a most encouraging start.

"I really, really wanted to do well here," he said with some feeling. And when a two-putt birdie at the long first and a holed eight-footer delivered another birdie at the second, he seemed securely on his way. Then things got even better when he reached the 525-yard 12th with a nine-iron second-shot downwind.

But after a bogey on the 15th, patient, productive work was completely undone when he ran up a double-bogey six on the 17th where he missed the green and duffed his recovery. So, no blame could be attached to the putter which replaced the one broken in anger during Friday's second round.

Ryder Cup skipper, Darren Clarke, maintained encouraging form of late in a 72 which would have been better, but for a finishing bogey. And it was a delight to see him relish the challenge of working the ball through menacing crosswinds, especially knowing that a frailty with the blade would deny him the reward he deserved.

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