McIlroy agony casts shadow over Irish Open
World No 2's slump continues as exit of Major 'heroes' likely to hit gates
ONWARDS, ever downwards!
It was difficult to be optimistic for Rory McIlroy or, indeed, the Irish Open, as the world No 2 and Ireland's three other Major champions, Graeme McDowell, Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke all missed the cut at Carton House.
The prospect of bumper crowds at this weekend's tournament climax now rest on the broad shoulders of Shane Lowry, sensational winner of this title as an amateur in 2009.
In an intriguing twist, the Clara native appeared to be heading for another weekend confrontation with Robert Rock, the Englishman he beat in an unforgettable storm at Baltray four years ago.
Lowry recovered from a stuttering start yesterday to post a fighting second-round 70, which lifted the Carton resident into a share of third place on seven-under.
He was just two behind joint leaders Rock and American Peter Uihlein (23), the 2010 US Amateur champion who illuminated an impressive rookie season on the European Tour by winning the recent Madeira Islands Open.
To McIlroy's credit, he felt more for the Irish Open than he did for himself, despite shipping yet another shuddering body blow in a season of discontent.
"No, I'm more disappointed more for the tournament to be honest," said the Holywood native moments after signing for the even-par 72 which left him wallowing two strokes outside the cut on two-over-par.
"I'm okay, I'm fine," McIlroy went on. "But for the tournament, yeah, it's not great that I'm not here and a few of the others aren't here either."
The world No 2's morale was boosted by an improvement in his general play yesterday after an abject performance, especially off the tee, during Thursday's 74.
"I'm still confident in my ability to hit the golf ball and hit good shots," he explained. "I guess confidence comes with seeing good shots and I played a little better today.
"When I missed the green, I didn't really get up and down or hole many putts, so from that point of view it wasn't great. Yet from being on the golf course and seeing some good shots, I'm definitely more positive than I was on Thursday."
In reality, McIlroy is grasping at straws. The key to redemption after six harrowing months is restoring trust in the most potent weapon in his armoury, his driver.
The 24-year-old admitted yesterday he's yet to find a new Nike Covert driver he can hit consistently well.
"Actually, this was a new driver in the bag this week and still wasn't 100pc what I want," he conceded. "So I'm testing with them (Nike) again next week.
"It's a lack of consistency. I'll hit one really good and the next not so much. That's a combination of maybe the driver not being completely right for me, and my swing not being where it should be. But as I said, I saw a lot more good drives out there today."
Yet too many squirted into the right rough, especially on the back nine, when McIlroy often left himself scrambling for par when he needed to make birdies ... sadly, his short game and, especially, his putting wasn't up to the challenge.
The quandary for players who change equipment and then have a glitch with their swing is trying to work out which really is at fault.
In his case, McIlroy insists he is able to determine the answer to this perplexing riddle, saying: "It's definitely more swing that it is club. If I was swinging my best, I would stand up and hit any sort of a shot that I want to hit."
He flatly dismissed any suggestion of returning to the Titleist driver which propelled him to the top of the world and to two record-breaking victories at the Major championships, saying: "No, I'd much rather just play with this one and not even think about that."
More's the pity!
Though in plain need of more tournament golf to sharpen his competitive edge before next month's British Open, McIlroy won't enter the French or Scottish Opens because of other off-course commitments in the upcoming fortnight, including a family wedding next weekend.
"If I didn't have these couple of things to do over the next couple of weeks, I probably would add a tournament," he admitted. "But I'll go and play golf (at Muirfield), be competitive myself and try and shoot a score. That's the same sort of thing."
Sadly, it isn't.
Given fair weather, McIlroy should be suited by Muirfield, the fairest links of them all. Yet the stakes are so high for him at the Majors, evidenced by his petulant behaviour last Sunday week at Merion, one fears that a poor performance at the British Open might further undermine his fragile confidence.
Beyond their obvious disappointment, the consequences of missing the cut on one-over-par are less serious for McDowell and Harrington, Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley on two-over or even the foundering Darren Clarke on eight-over, than they are for McIlroy and the Irish Open itself.
The official return of 21,377 spectators yesterday was lower, of course, than Friday at Portrush last year but exceeded the second-round attendance figures in Killarney in 2010 and 2011.
Still, it's remarkable how even a crowd of this size looks so small in the vast expanse of the Montgomerie Course. However, the 1,500 grandstand seats at 17 were filled and the atmosphere buzzing when Lowry and McIlroy passed through.
Peter Lawrie warmed up the crowd nicely by hitting his tee shot to inches for the first of two closing birdies of the second-round 71 which eased the Dubliner through on one-under.
Lowry also picked up shots on the closing holes to join resurgent 2012 Ryder Cup captain Jose Maria Olazabal (47) – winner of the Irish Open at Portmarnock in 1990 – in a five-way tie for third on seven-under.
One suspects today's attendance might be less, especially with the attention of the majority of Lowry's Faithful followers drawn to this afternoon by the All-Ireland football championship qualifier between Offaly and Tyrone in Tullamore.
Still, should the 26-year-old be in contention entering tomorrow's final round, the Montgomerie Course should echo with roars as strong as those which helped propel Lowry into Irish golfing history at Baltray four years ago.
So vociferous and partisan was the support for Lowry during that year's play-off with Rock, the Englishman conceded that occasion felt more intimidating than going head-to-head with Tiger Woods in Abu Dhabi last January.
"I'll never forget that day playing with Shane," mused Rock, who made light of conditions on a sullen, windswept day of attrition at Carton with a stunning second-round 66.
"That was really, really tough,. Almost harder, probably, than going down the stretch with Tiger with a tournament on the line ... because I felt I at least had some people on my side in Abu Dhabi. I don't think there was even one in Baltray!"
Eight of the 27 Irishmen who teed it up in the first two rounds of this tournament survived the cut.
Belfast's Gareth Shaw (27) birdied three of the final four holes for a 68 which eased him through to the weekend in the first full European Tour event of his five-year professional career.
Though Portrush native Alan Dunbar was disappointed to finish with two three-putt bogeys, yesterday's 72 left him tied-35th on two-under with Simon Thornton and Damian Mooney.
Michael Hoey followed Thursday's sparkling 67 with a 76, the Ballymoney native racking up 36 putts as, like many others, he found it difficult to perform in gusting winds on the exposed greens.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle between Lowry and a second Irish Open title is Uihlein, who last year opted to follow the example of Aussie Adam Scott and learn his trade on the European circuit.
Uihlein drives the ball a mile but is a big-hitter in another way ... his dad Wally is chief executive of Acushnet, manufacturers of Titleist equipment and, as kids, Uihlein and McIlroy played in World Junior Championships together.
Had the Ulsterman, like Uihlein, still wielded a Titleist driver in the first two rounds at Carton, one suspects his name would be at the top of the leaderboard this weekend ... and maybe even the world rankings.
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