Luiten leads as Lowry's hopes fade
Patience with typically Irish Open weather was eventually rewarded at Carton House yesterday when a dismally damp morning gave way to decidedly pleasant conditions for the business end of the third round. And, like much of our merchandise, the title seems destined for export.
Dutchman Joost Luiten is favourite to claim it, having swept to the top of the leaderboard on 13 under par, after a 66 which contained no bogeys. But it wasn't error-free: crucially he holed par putts ranging up to 18 feet in length, to keep his score going.
Most important of all, however, is that he has yet to visit one of the forbidding fairway bunkers on the Montgomerie Course, in 54 holes. "That was very important," he said, almost superfluously, before adding with a smile: "And I hit a lot of greens."
While fans of a certain age were looking to mid-life magic from Jose Maria Olazabal, a Spaniard with a similar-sounding name made the more dramatic progress. Pablo Larrazabal, the son of a fish farmer from Santander, matched Luiten's 66 to be second on his own.
"I've never seen anything like the 17th here," said the delighted Spaniard. "An amazing experience, especially when they were cheering for me."
Offaly support was also numerous and vocal when Shane Lowry set off in the third-last three-ball of the day. Ready cheers rang out when he birdied the second. From there, however, the blade turned cold and it all became a bit of a struggle. And after a dispiriting 74, his expressive face made words almost redundant.
The cruellest blow was a bogey on the 17th where he was short, left and then missed a five-footer for par. "It just wasn't there," he said afterwards. "Maybe I was trying too hard, but I've played my way out of this golf tournament. I don't think I can go low enough tomorrow."
Earlier in the day, when Lowry held centre stage, the supporting cast began to move into position. And an accomplished player who complained humorously that he "wasn't even mentioned at the start of the week", seized his opportunity. Peter Lawrie had two runs of three successive birdies in an admirable 67 which moved him to six under par overall.
It was a particularly welcome lift after the disappointment of Open qualifying at Sunningdale last Monday, when an opening 74 killed his chance. But a determination to be part of this weekend's action was evident when two closing birdies on Friday got him inside the cut with a stroke to spare.
Lawrie's first birdie run came on the seventh, eighth and ninth to bring him to the turn in 33. And even more impressive were putts from six, 10 and 11 feet for the next run on the 12th, 13th and 14th. He then completed the round in appropriate style, chipping to six feet for his seventh birdie of the day at the long 18th.
Alan Dunbar also made a significant move, by way of compensating for the absence of bigger-name compatriots. Only a year after capturing the British Amateur Championship at Royal Troon, the 23-year-old from Portrush has carried that air of quiet confidence into his two months in paid ranks.
Even the crushing setback of double-bogeys are accepted as an inevitable part of learning his craft, like from the edge of a bunker at the fifth on Thursday to yesterday's one on the ninth, where he missed the fairway and three-putted. On reaching the turn in 37, Dunbar proceeded to cover the homeward journey in 32, courtesy of a 3-3 finish of par-eagle.
The eagle was the product of a chip-in, which, by his own admission, gave him just about as much as he deserved. "I didn't play great," he said, before heading to the practice ground to work with his coach, Seamus Duffy.
"I've been struggling with my swing all week, but, since turning professional, I've also been learning the art of scoring. It's important on days like today."
Fellow Northerners Gareth Shaw (-5) and Simon Thornton (-4) also kept up the fight in what proved to be splendid scoring conditions. Both carded 70s and Thornton's effort was especially creditable, given that he managed to be bogey-free while picking up birdies at the ninth and 13th.
These days, 47-year-olds can remain competitive on tour. But since his Irish Open debut as an amateur at Royal Dublin in 1985, Olazabal has put more mileage on the clock than any of his contemporaries. And there's always the feeling that wear and tear will surface in the white heat of competition.
En route to a 71, he enjoyed the premium placed on precise chipping and was grateful for the sort of latitude he likes off the tee. Indeed, he could have been more strongly placed had one of golf's great putting strokes performed up to the irrepressible standards of his halcyon days. But even he could hardly expect such a blessing.
Meanwhile, quite a few eyebrows were raised by the tight cut-figure of level-par, given windy conditions, the absence of so many of Europe's leading practitioners and the acknowledged difficulty of the Montgomerie Course. In truth, it reflected simply the growing strength of the European Tour, even if players no longer have household names.
The championship's first level-par cut was reached as far back as 30 years ago at Royal Dublin, which at 6,879 yards for a par of 72, was about 400 yards shorter than this weekend's test.
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