While Rory McIlroy bombed in his first event in Ireland since winning the US Open, his playing partner David Howell shot a round-best seven-under 64 to take a share of the lead on 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 course on the opening day of last year’s Irish Open.
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.
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 hour-long 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 on Friday, more than 20,000 fans lined the fairways hoping to see a show from McIlroy and last year’s US 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 about 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.
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.