A back problem had sidelined Pepperell since mid-May and forced him to miss the US Open at Pebble Beach but he showed no signs of rust in adding a 67 to his opening 65 to trail halfway leader Zander Lombard by a shot at Lahinch.
Before the serious action got under way at Lahinch, Pepperell took on New Zealand’s Ryan Fox in a 14-club challenge on the par-three eighth at Lahinch and emerged victorious with some brilliant shot-making to win the wager which had been agreed beforehand.
“I’ve surprised myself, I guess, to be in this position,” said the Englishman, who won the Qatar Masters and British Masters last season, and was third in the Players Championship in March.
“I don’t feel like I’ve played great but I’ve certainly been quite steady and my short game has been great.
“I would be quite honestly disappointed if I didn’t win, or certainly come close to winning, being in this position with my recent record in terms of my form over the last 12 to 18 months.
“I certainly feel very calm leading and if I don’t get in my own way over the weekend, I don’t see why I can’t win this tournament, and I’m not afraid of winning it, so that’s a nice feeling. I think in the past I would certainly have been a lot more nervy in this position but I feel relatively calm, to be honest, so I’m looking forward to a good weekend ahead around a great course.”
Lombard, who was joint sixth at halfway in last year’s Open but finished 67th after a closing 82 at Carnoustie, declared himself “ecstatic” to find himself in the lead after enduring six straight missed cuts.
“I went through a bit of a bad spell, missing a few cuts by one, and it’s really just been hard graft the last three months, sticking to the process with my team,” the 24-year-old South African said.
“It just came together at the right time, I suppose, and I’m happy with the results so far. I’m so comfortable on links golf. It’s never just a normal shot. It’s always a little three-quarter, a little punch, judging the wind right.
“I’ve had great success on links golf in my amateur career and hopefully I can take it into the weekend.”
England’s Lee Westwood, Mexico’s Abraham Ancer and Spain’s Jorge Campillo are two shots off the lead, with defending champion Russell Knox another two strokes adrift thanks to an eagle on the 18th in a battling 68, with the Scot recovering from playing the first six holes in three over.
Overnight leader Padraig Harrington slipped five shots off the lead after struggling to a 73, while Graeme McDowell missed the cut after a second successive 72.
“You have to stick in there, and I was a little better on the back nine, so hopefully I have not done too much damage,” three-time major winner and 2020 Ryder Cup captain Harrington said.
“Four under par is still in it. I’m under pressure now over the weekend. That’s the problem.”
Former champion Shane Lowry, who won the title in 2009 while still an amateur, and 2017 winner Jon Rahm are both two under after rounds of 72 and 71 respectively.