Tuesday 15 October 2019

'Everyone has a plan until they get smacked in the face' - McIlroy and McDowell lurking in US Open as Lowry survives cut

Graeme McDowell watches his tee shot on the 17th hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Graeme McDowell watches his tee shot on the 17th hole during the second round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Brian Keogh at Pebble Beach

RORY McIlroy gave himself a late pep talk to finish strongly and remain in the hunt for the US Open and an end to his five-year major drought at Pebble Beach.

The world number three showed his determination to gut it out for a fifth major win when he bounced back from going bogey, double-bogey at the 13th and 14th to card a 69 that left him just four shots off the pace at halfway.

The Co Down man shares fourth place with 22-year old Californian Aaron Wise on five-under par on a day with a rejuvenated Graeme McDowell just six off the lead after a 70 and Shane Lowry through to the weekend on the two-over limit after a brace of gutsy pars at the eighth an ninth gave him a 69.

Lowry was playing alongside Kansas native Woodland, who carded a bogey-free, six-under 65 to lead by two strokes from Justin Rose and by three from South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen on nine-under-par.

But McIlroy is lurking in a tie for fourth on five-under after quickly picking himself up following careless mistakes at the 13th and 14th with back-to-back birdies.

"I was feeling good about myself, [at] six-under par, and felt like I could squeeze a couple more out of the round on the last couple of holes and maybe get the lead going into the weekend," said McIlroy, who birdied the fourth, seventh and 11th to get to within a shot of early leader Rose on six-under.

He immediately paid for his aggression with a bogey at the 13th, then ran up a careless double-bogey seven at the par-five 14th, when he spun his tricky third shot off the green, bunkered a delicate pitch and took three more to get down.

"I had a few choices words with myself on the 15th tee, called myself a couple of names," confessed McIlroy, who hit a stunning fairway bunker shot to four feet at the 15th and then made a fast-breaking 17 footer at the 16th to undo most of the damage.

Rory McIlroy lines up a putt on the 3rd green during the second round of the 2019 U.S. Open golf tournament Photo: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
Rory McIlroy lines up a putt on the 3rd green during the second round of the 2019 U.S. Open golf tournament Photo: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

"I'd done a lot of the hard work – three under through 12 — and then to give that back in the space of two holes was disappointing.

"To bounce back and play the last four holes in two under par was nice. The bunker shot on 15 turned it all around.  It was big for me."

McIlroy is playing some of the best golf of his career and now knows that patience and resilience are as important in a US Open as the fireworks.

"I wasn't as disciplined as I needed to be on a couple of those holes on the back nine, but I bounced back from that, which was a really good sign,” he said.

"And look, it's not going to be easy over the weekend, you're going to make bogeys, you're going to make mistakes, it's going to happen. And if I can keep responding to those mistakes like I did today, I'll be right there."

McDowell has been reborn since he returned to the winner's circle in March and then shrugged another monkey off his back by clinching his ticket home for The Open last week.

He might be just a shade short of competitive sharpness at this level after some lean years, but he's certainly riding a wave of confidence only six weeks shy of his 40th birthday and he showed all his trademark grittiness yesterday to remain very much in the hunt on three-under after a bad start.

Buoyed by an opening 69, he was soon back to level par after chastening bogeys at the second and third.

But he responded spectacularly with birdies the next four holes and almost holed his 200-yard approach at the 10th, tapping in from six inches to get within two shots of the lead on five-under.

While he bogeyed the 11th and took six at the 14th, he was pleased to par his home and go into the weekend with a chance of a second US Open title very much alive.

"I got off to a nervous start, I'll be honest with you," McDowell confessed. "Everyone has a plan until they get smacked in the face. I got smacked in the face the first two holes.

"I've always been known as a grinder, and the word clutch comes into the conversation from time to time, which is nice. And I feel like those labels have started to peel off, and it's nice to reattach those a little bit.

"I played the type of golf that I know I'm capable of, and I want one more run at the top of the sport. And I'm still on the journey back up there."

While Woodland leads on nine-under, 87 players made the weekend on two-over or better, and with the course drying out, scoring is only going to get tougher.

Defending champion Brooks Koepka is just five shots behind after a second successive 69, tied for sixth with Chez Reavie, Chesson Hadley, Matt Kuchar and Matt Wallace on four-under.

With Sergio Garcia on three-under, Francesco Molinari and Dustin Johnson on two-under, Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson one-under and Tiger Woods still lurking on level par, a constellation of stars of waiting to shine.

"There's a lot of great storylines this weekend," McDowell said, pointing to playing partner Mickelson chasing the final leg of the career grand slam as he prepares to turn 49 on Sunday as an inspirational figure for him. "It's nice to be potentially one of those stories."

Lowry was thrilled to make the cut by recovering from his opening 75 with an impressive 69 that might have been even better.

He had a chance to go three under for his round through nine holes but three-putted the par-five 18th from 40 feet, gunning his slick eagle putt eight feet past.

He rebounded with a birdie at the first, bogeyed the second after a poor lay-up from a fairway bunker but then birdied the short fifth thanks to a stunning eight iron to 15 feet.

A three-putt bogey at the par-five sixth left him on the cut line, but after missing a good chance inside 10 feet at the iconic seventh, he closed with two gutsy pars, rifling irons in the heart of the eighth and ninth greens.

"That was hard," Lowry said with a sigh of relief. "I played great today. I hit a couple of bad shots, and that was it. The putter went a bit cold towards the end, but it was nice to two-putt , eight and nine, which are two hard holes.

"The most disappointing thing would have been missing the cut because I feel so good. I do feel like I  can do something over the weekend."

He admitted his first round 75 might have been worse had it not been for his putting. But he now believes he can do what he did at the US PGA and race up the leaderboard with a hot weekend.

"I was excited, and I was ready to go, but that's golf," Lowry said of his slow start on Thursday. "I will try to get it back into the red from here, but Gary obviously played great today.

"He's nine under, and he's a proper player. He crunches it, and he made two lovely putts to finish."

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