Friday 19 January 2018

McIlroy tightens his grip on rain-disrupted Open

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland tees off on the 11th hole. Photo: Getty
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland tees off on the 11th hole. Photo: Getty

Dermot Gilleece

Rory McIlroy is set to make emphatic amends for recent failures in the €4m Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, after sweeping into a three-stroke lead over Danny Willett, in an unfinished third round at The K Club yesterday. Power, control and the composure of a champion characterised his every move during 15 holes seriously disrupted by the weather.

Afternoon rain-showers accompanied by the threat of lightning caused play to be twice suspended for almost two hours and 20 minutes, and then for 90 minutes.

As a result, McIlroy's dominance over the US Masters champion might have been compromised. But he maintained composure most impressively by completing a birdie on the 10th after the first break, and later keeping a bogey off his card before play was stopped for bad light.

In comparison, Willett looked ill at ease in the succeeding two-ball. Though he prepared in a manner befitting a Major champion, starting with three hours here last Monday with coach Pete Cowen, flaws re-appeared, especially off the tee. The upshot was three bogeys on the front nine and limited birdie opportunities overall.

With a birdie at the long fourth, McIlroy covered the outward journey in one-under-par, two strokes clear of Willett in sole possession of second place. This represented quite a shift from the halfway stage on Friday evening, when the Masters champion and Scotland's Marc Warren were joint-leaders on eight-under-par, a stroke clear of the Holywood star.

At a point where McIlroy was poised to extend his lead on the 10th, the siren went for the first suspension of play. Though the two shots he hit there could hardly have had such a dramatic effect on the heavens, they were electrifying just the same.

Magnificent blows with a drive and three-wood were sufficient to reach the target on this formidable par-five of 584 yards, where the tee was just about as far back as it could go. Even more impressive was that with precious little run on the wet, lush terrain, the ball finished just off the putting surface towards the front, left of the green from where he putted up to four feet.

To fully appreciate this power-hitting, it should be noted that McIlroy's drive came to rest no more than two feet from its pitch-mark and a full 30 yards past his English playing partner, Matthew Southgate. Then, with 268 yards to the pin, he needed absolutely perfect contact with a three-wood to clear the front greenside bunker on the left, while factoring in heavy air and a facing breeze.

Was this McIlroy at full throttle? Not quite. The perfect balance he maintained throughout indicated more in reserve if required.

The scene at lunchtime illustrated what appears to be the Irish Open's perennial jinx with the weather. Trees dazzled in bright sunshine and with their branches swaying in a warm breeze, you could hardly have wished for better from the elements. But all was to change just before 2.0pm.

That was when a freshening wind and a drop in temperature were followed by heavy, dispiriting rain-showers, culminating in a suspension of play at 3.27pm. Still, the course continued to present a searching test. Though some players complained about the varying pace of greens, JP Fitzgerald, McIlroy's caddie, captured the challenge perfectly with the pithy comment: "Look, it's May . . . "

From experience of this stretch, back to the Ryder Cup and beyond, he went on to remark on how well it has matured. "It's now a much tougher course than the one I first knew," he said, "especially off the tee."

From an original Irish entry of 22, nine survived the halfway cut, which was an impressive ratio given that the departed largely comprised Irish Region representatives and invited amateurs. McIlroy, however, was alone among them in making worthwhile progress.

A forward tee which reduced the long 16th to little more than 500 yards had Shane Lowry contemplating a 3, 3, 3 - eagle, birdie, eagle - finish. Instead, a four-iron of 207 yards, which found the Liffey on the 16th and a three-putt bogey on the next, had him eventually settling for a more modest 5, 5, 4 in a round of 71 and plus-one overall.

Regarding the course, he said: "Compared to what we saw here three weeks ago, it's in unbelievable condition." And Darren Clarke, who has extensive experience of it, was moved to remark: "Though it's a score I'm very proud of, I have no idea how I managed to shoot 60 around here." Which he did in the second round in 1999.

Did he find his ongoing struggle frustrating. Clarke's carefully measured reply was: "I felt like throwing half the set of clubs into the Liffey." It hardly seemed appropriate in the circumstances to ask what his plans were for the other half.

Graeme McDowell jumped into prominence with a start of birdie, par, birdie. From there, however, he went on to card a thoroughly disappointing 76.

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