While Rory McIlroy bombed in his first event in Ireland since winning the U.S. Open, his playing partner David Howell shot a round-best 7-under 64 to take a share of the lead Saturday as the Irish Open reached the final stretch.
Howell, 36, put himself in contention for his first tournament win in five years by shooting what he called his best round in 12 months. Not coincidentally that previous best, also a 64, happened on the same Killarney Golf and Fishing Club course on the opening day of last year’s Irish Open.
2011 IRISH OPEN
The 7,161-yard, par-71 course at the Killarney Golf and Fishing Club is built alongside Lough Leane, which can come into play on four of the first 10 holes.
Howell ended up sharing the lead when England’s Simon Dyson birdied the 17th hole and Australia’s Richard Green the last. Both finished with rounds of 67 to join Howell at 11 under with Sunday’s final 18 holes to go.
“I was far calmer than I thought I was going to be,” said Howell, who played amid the day’s biggest crowds with McIlroy in his group. “It was wonderful to play with the winner of the U.S. Open and the star of world golf here in his home country.”
Howell birdied seven holes, including a trio of long par 4s from holes 11 to 13 that are among the course’s most challenging.
He appeared to thrive as the weather turned foul midway into his round. An hourlong downpour sent spectators scurrying for ponchos or the cover of oak trees. Only a lone red deer, running loose on a fairway, appeared to appreciate the deluge.
Disappointment was the order of the day for the Irish hosts as the tournament’s field of homegrown stars fizzled. Only two of the seven remaining Irish players broke par.
Already missing British Open holder Darren Clarke and three-time major champion Padraig Harrington, who crashed out Friday, more than 20,000 fans lined the fairways hoping to see a show from McIlroy and 2010 U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell.
It quickly turned into a show of futility. Both McIlroy and McDowell started five behind the leaders and finished eight shots back.
McIlroy sliced his opening drive onto the rocky shore of Lough Leane. His awkward second shot clipped a stone and settled in the mud some 20 yards away. He three-putted for a double bogey.
He also bogeyed the par-3 third, teeing off wide left into a stream. Then he double bogeyed No. 8 to mar his round of 72.
McDowell birdied the first hole but teed off into a bunker on the short third, then three-putted for double bogey. Like McIlroy, he finished on 72.
McDowell said the gusting winds and sticky, subtly undulating greens got the best of him as he hit the fairway on only six drives and came up short on several par-saving putts.
“I just missed too many fairways and was seriously cold on the greens. They have me seriously confused. I just can’t read them at all,” said McDowell, who planned to celebrate his 32nd birthday Saturday with dinner in the holiday town of Killarney alongside his wife and kids.
“I’m feeling every bit of 32,” he said, adding with a sly grin: “Who knows, I might have a celebratory pint.”
The 22-year-old McIlroy, meanwhile, conceded he forced shots in hopes of entertaining the home fans, many of whom came specifically to see the phenomenon from Holywood, Northern Ireland. He said his main hope Sunday was to be paired with McDowell.
“I’m feeling as if I need a couple of drinks or something,” McIlroy said. “At this tournament, you’re trying so hard to play well for not just yourself, but for everyone else. Sometimes you can just find yourself trying a little too hard and pushing a bit too much.”