Harrington flies the flag for Irish to stay right on leaders' tails
Dubliner spearheads faltering home challenge one shot off pace as McIlroy bows out on nine-over with apology to fans
Rory McIlroy's recent run of form suggested that his motto should read "the impossible we do immediately, miracles take a little time."
Sadly for the poster boy and host of this Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, time and birdie opportunities ran out before he could manifest a miracle of survival into day three at Royal County Down.
McIlroy tried his best but to no avail. Turns out, he's human after all.
His level-par 71 kept him stalled at nine over par and the World No 1 made his exit with expressions of regret that the home fans could not see him at his best.
"It's disappointing. I wanted to come here and play well this week. Obviously I'm playing at home in front of a lot of friends and family. To not play the way I wanted is very disappointing," said McIlroy.
Meanwhile, a golfing version of the Foreign Legion marched to the head of the leaderboard as the home army retreated in disarray, leaving only six players, led by Padraig Harrington, to carry the banner for the Irish brigade after 22 started the tournament.
A bunch of six converged at the top of the leaderboard on three under par - Rafa Cabrera-Bello (Spain), England's Tyrell Hatton and Chris Wood, Richie Ramsay (Scotland), Denmark's Soren Kjeldsen and Bernd Wiesberger of Austria.
Behind them Harrington, the last Irishman to win this tournament, nestled in a group on two under after taking 73, and spoke of the weight of expectations on a home player.
Harrington does positive thinking like few other players in his profession, but even he can struggle to stay calm and detached in front of the Irish galleries.
Quietly, he thanks the gods that he has that Irish Open title in the bag and it can never be taken away from him.
Winning one or two more, well, that's a big task and he did his best to explain the reasons for the paucity of home winners on the roll of honour.
"Yes, having won one is always nice. It's something I would have missed on my CV if I had not won an Irish Open," said Harrington.
"That doesn't mean I'm trying any less this week. The pressure to win any tournament is enough to keep your mind occupied.
"I do say there is more distraction at an Irish Open. It's not a normal emotion to hit a golf shot and feel you've actually let people down.
"But during the Irish Open that's how you can feel about it. Sometimes you hit a bad shot and you want to go over and tell everybody, it was actually really difficult," he added with a smile.
This is a player who has won a bagful of Tour titles and three Majors, yet he illustrated his point with a little anecdote from yesterday on the second hole.
"I missed the putt. I hit the ball where I wanted but it was halfway there and I hear a 'tut, tut'. I hit the ball where I wanted but it missed," he said.
"Emotionally you do get too involved at times with the support because they are willing you on so much, and you're obviously trying to keep it neutral and not get on too much of a high. So it is interesting, that's for sure."
Harrington certainly made it interesting as he flowed through his first seven holes.
Starting from the tenth he was Steady Eddie and then he reeled off a couple of birdies on holes 16 and 17. Par on 18 and he was out in 34, and now in sole leadership on six under for the tournament.
The first fell to a birdie four. Seven under par, the game looks easy. Royal County Down, how are ye!
Club professional Kevan Whitson had warned during the week that the course does not like to be challenged, that she will defend herself. And so 'she' did.
Over the next eight holes, the Dubliner had four bogeys, a double-bogey, three pars and one birdie on the short 7th. He signed for 73, six more than Thursday, but still very much in contention.
"I'm disappointed with the finish. I am pleased to be in contention, but it's going to be a much tougher weekend. I'll have to stick in there and play well and hope things go in my favour," he said.
The star man of the day was the little-known Hatton, who came on the main Tour via the Challenge Tour last year. His super 66 equalled the best score recorded in competition at Royal County Down, back in 1939 by Irish amateur legend Jimmy Bruen.
Hatton exemplified the old saying that 'ignorance is bliss' in that he came to Newcastle knowing little or nothing about the course beyond its reputation in the world course rankings.
He got his first look at the feared and revered Royal County Down links in the Pro-Am on Wednesday.
On Thursday he scored 73 in round one, and then took the course apart with his five-under effort yesterday.
"I'm very happy. I got off to a great start. That was the key for me today. Thankfully I kept it going and had a good finish," said Hatton.
Ramsay (31) has won twice on the European Tour, and as a Scot brought up on the Royal Aberdeen links, he has no fear of a stiff links challenge as he showed with his 67.
Ramsay enjoyed the buzz of enthusiasm from the heroic galleries at Royal County Down who have been out there in wintry cold suffering drenchings by squally showers, and still heartily applaud good golf no matter who produces it.
"The Irish and the Scottish are very accustomed to playing this type of golf, and long may it continue, especially this week," he said.
Wiesberger shot 72 on Thursday and started on the 10th yesterday.
The Austrian turned in 31 after a spectacular, birdie, birdie, eagle finish to his first nine, and kept his composure for two bogeys and a birdie to close out his back nine on 36 for 67.
Kjeldsen held the outright lead at five under at one point, but dropped back for 70 and a share of the lead. but none of the leading sextet can rest easy on their laurels.
Cabrera-Bello came in late on with 68, and Wood, playing in Hatton's group, followed his opening 70 with 69.
Today is 'moving day', and on this course, particularly with the weather forecast the best of the tournament, opportunities abound for advancement.
The cut came at +5, and only nine shots covers the whole field, so whoever gets their mojo working and heats up the putter can make significant progress.
That includes the other five Irish players who survived.
Paul McGinley's 73 put him on three over; Shane Lowry (74) is a shot behind on four over, and Major winners Darren Clarke (72), and Graeme McDowell (75) got in on the cut mark of five over.
McGinley has been impressively steady over the first two days and is making the most of his considerable experience.
Lowry thought about walking off after his eighth hole, the 17th, after breaking his putter on the 12th, but was persuaded by his caddie Dermot Byrne and coach Neil Manchip to stick at it.
McDowell believes he still has a fighting chance.
"It's absolutely still winnable. I'll need to play well and I'll need a little help from the weather but anything is possible from here," he said.
Clarke fought hard from a starting four over par to reduce further damage to the minimum. He said his ball-striking was excellent but his putting let him down and needs work before tee-off time today.
"I'm probably too far back, but I'll go out and play as well as I possibly can," he said.
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