Wednesday 13 December 2017

Rahm makes hay while sun shines as Irish fail to fire

Jon Rahm of Spain on the fourth hole during day three of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in Portstewart. Photo: John Dickson
Jon Rahm of Spain on the fourth hole during day three of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in Portstewart. Photo: John Dickson

Dermot Gilleece

A stunning location was clad in its finest apparel yesterday, for the third round of the $7m Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Portstewart. It became the perfect setting for a moving-day surge from the gifted Spaniard Jon Rahm, who had been hovering menacingly for close on 50 holes.

The most significant aspect of Rahm's 67 for 17-under-par, was how it exploited scoring conditions which are certain to become a lot less favourable in a change to blustery showers today.

Big, powerful and with a pickpocket's touch around the greens, he went from third place overnight to be tied at the top with long-time joint leader Daniel Im from the US. Central to Rahm's progress was a run of four birdies from the 11th to the 14th. In fact, he has played the 522-yard 14th in an impressive 11 strokes over three rounds.

"Tomorrow could be a very special day for me," said the 22-year-old afterwards. "The Spanish have a proud history at the Irish."

When early cloud cleared, we were treated to glorious links conditions of bright sunshine and crisp south-westerlies, freshening to about 15mph, while green speeds quickened to 11.5 on the Stimpmeter. No significant progress was achieved by the five Irish survivors, however, by way of softening acute disappointment locally at the departure of defending champion Rory McIlroy.

Naturally, everybody had an opinion on his absence, not least because of a 36-hole total which was actually five strokes short of the halfway cut. Either way, if we are to believe that the primary function of a professional is to entertain, there were thousands of fans with reason to feel sorely deprived on having travelled to an event missing the leading attraction.

Meanwhile, Australian Scott Hend showed what could be done when he emerged from the pack with a blistering 64. That's what Padraig Harrington had in mind, having declared that it was not a weekend for scrambling, but for the purposeful pursuit of birdies and possible eagles.

Which brought to mind a very different Portstewart scene when the national finals of the Cups and Shields were played there in 1995. That was when Monkstown GC won the Jimmy Bruen Shield and the club captain Ger Lehane proudly proclaimed their competitive strategy to a slightly confused audience around the 18th green.

"The secret of our success," he said, "was our commitment to the three-Ds: determination, dedication and de will to win." And, naturally, they later celebrated with all five verses of "De Banks".

As it happened, Harrington paid a price for over-aggression. A 12-degree two-wood into the wind off the first tee was carved into an unplayable lie in dense buckthorn down the right, from where he did well to make bogey, courtesy of a 40-foot putt.

Describing it later as "a great links day", he eventually had to sink a five-foot par-putt at the last for a disappointing 71. In between, he was warmly applauded by knowledgeable galleries who seem to retain a special affection for the Dubliner.

From a share of 12th place overnight, Paul Dunne went tumbling out of contention with a thoroughly dispiriting 74. Poor putting on the opening two holes seemed to set the mood for a round in which the low point was a double-bogey on the 11th.

"My putting was simply awful," he said afterwards. "In fact my short game overall was as bad as I can ever remember it." Given his strong mind, however, one could imagine this as no more than a glitch in his impressive progress.

Having lost main tour status, Michael Hoey's activities these days are concentrated largely on the Challenge Tour, but he improved his prospects of a $40,000 cheque today with a third-round 70. "I'm now shooting some of the best scores of my career, which has to be encouraging," he said.

After the once-familiar experience of rubbing shoulders with the game's elite, he will return to more modest surroundings in Italy this week. "A top-15 card on the Challenge Tour is better than the Tour School in terms of getting into events like this," he added.

Shane Lowry, also on six-under for the championship, has no such worries. But he should be concerned about a series of destructive shots in the middle of a third-round 71.

He could sense the vulnerability of the links. After birdies at the fifth, sixth and seventh, a poorly-executed, 90-yard wedge shot which totally missed the green on the eighth, led to a sickening bogey.

Worse was to follow on the long 13th, where a blocked drive out of bounds let to a double-bogey seven. "I feel my game is good, but I'm struggling to put a score together," he said afterwards.

Gavin Moynihan birdied the short 12th and then holed a bunker shot for an eagle at the next, only to be visibly crushed by three-putting the last two holes for closing bogeys in a 73.

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