Friday 20 April 2018

Slender lead for Fisher as McIlroy flounders

Dermot Gilleece at Killarney

On once being asked how many shots he wanted to win by, Sam Snead famously replied: "You never know. Them folks up ahead might be cheatin'." Just when Ross Fisher had the opportunity of harbouring similarly mischievous thoughts, he frittered away the guts of a five-stroke lead in the 3 Irish Open here on the Killeen Course yesterday.

At the end of a seriously eventful third round watched by a bumper crowd of 20,857, Fisher was only a stroke clear of English compatriot Chris Wood and Italy's Francesco Molinari.

Strong in numbers at the halfway stage, the Irish challenge thinned out significantly as the day progressed. And the greatest disappointment was the collapse of Rory McIlroy who, almost incredibly, carded a 76 after beginning with two birdies.

Before the high-tech growl of his Audi R8 signalled a fairly rapid departure from the scene, he attempted to put a brave face on a back nine of 41, culminating in a double-bogey on the last. "I just sort of let it get away from me a little bit," he said, reminiscent of his comment after a recent 80 at St Andrews.

"Now, I'm just looking forward to heading for Akron (Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone) with two big weeks ahead of me."

Still, Pádraig Harrington kept the flag flying in typically adventurous fashion. After careering dangerously in the wrong direction when finding water for a double-bogey at the eighth, the Dubliner recovered admirably to end the day with a 69 for nine-under par.

As it happened, the most dramatic aspect of a round containing five birdies, was an apparently modest par at the last. In fact, it was an extraordinary effort, given that Harrington's drive finished in the water hazard on the left from where he hit a rescue to 30 feet. His delight at sinking the putt was evident when flinging his ball into the adoring crowd.

"I got great support out there and I suppose as long as you're holing the putts, it feels good," he said afterwards. "I'm certainly delivering on that end of things and hopefully I'll play well and keep holing putts tomorrow."

With the sun making brave attempts to break through stubbornly grey skies, the dominant feature of a largely dry afternoon became freshening winds of up to 30mph. It made for a particularly tricky challenge among the more plentiful timber of the homeward journey, even with the benefit of greens which remained receptive.

Defending champion, Shane Lowry, continued to do himself proud with a 68 for six-under overall. It emphasised the quality of a superb 65 on Friday and included an eagle-three on the 519-yard 16th, which he reduced to a drive, 220-yard five-wood and a 20-foot putt.

That's where a change of driver worked to serious effect. "I cracked my regular one on the range this morning but I had a replacement in the boot of my car which actually works better in the wind," he explained. "It was great to come through the pressure of yesterday and I played just as well today."

Michael Hoey, with a level-par 71, succeeded in playing the crucial last four holes in one-under, which was three strokes better than Darren Clarke did. Having failed to birdie the long 16th, Clarke missed the green with short irons on the last two holes to run up closing bogeys, also in a 71. His playing partner, Paul McGinley, lacked Friday's sparkle in yet another 71 which contained two birdies and two bogeys. Yet he remained pleased with what remained an important "stepping stone".

Though Graeme McDowell had to endure another testing day on the greens, he had the satisfaction of significant progress with a 68, having made the cut on the limit, at level-par. "I actually played a lot better today, hitting a lot of fairways and greens but some of the pins were tucked away on ledges," said the recently-crowned US Open champion who celebrated his 31st birthday on Friday.

"Apart from a 20-footer on the last, there really wasn't much going on on the greens. Which was a pity because I played some solid golf, missing only two greens." While admitting that he still hadn't fully recovered mentally from his Pebble Beach exploits in June, he added ruefully: "I just haven't got hot with the putter."

See Pages 8 and 9

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