“They have been as stress-free two 67s as I’ve shot all year,” declared McIlroy after arriving at the halfway stage of the £4.6 million event on ten-under-par to sit just four shots off the pace, having trailed Jaco Van Zyl by ten shots early in the second round before the South African faltered on his back nine to let a posse of players get back within touching distance.
After covering his back nine in 28 for a 65, Richard Bland and fellow Englishman Chris Wood (66) are leading the chase on 12-under, with Victor Dubuisson, the 2013 winner, reigniting his love affair with this venue with a 64 to leave the Frenchman a shot further back alongside Paraguay’s Fabrizio Zanotti (66).
On another day of low-scoring in sun-kissed conditions on the Mediterranean coast, former US Open champion Graeme McDowell also shot into contention with a 65 while Matt Fitzpatrick’s 63 – a ten-stroke improvement on his opening effort – was another sign of what an exciting prospect the European Tour has in its ranks as the 21-year-old bids to back up his recent British Masters triumph at Woburn.
It’s the looming presence of McIlroy, however, which promises a fascinating last 36 holes in the opening event of the lucrative Final Series, with the four-times major winner having been encouraged by two bogey-free circuits so far, though he has had to dig deep for his par on both visits to the 18th.
As on day one, he pulled his drive again, finding a bush on this occasion. After taking a penalty drop, he still had to hit a “30 to 40-yard” pull around the trees, was delighted with the lay up and even happier with a five-foot putt dropping. “That was an important one to hole as it wouldn’t have been nice to have my first bogey in 36 holes at the last,” said McIlroy. “It keeps me within touching distance going into the weekend.”
Chasing his first win since the Wells Fargo Championship in May, the 26-year-old described his work so far here as “two solid days of golf” and has been pleased to see some putts being converted, having admitted he’d been frustrated with that aspect of his game in his last outing a fortnight ago.
“I think there is a 62 or 63 out there for me,” said McIlroy. “I’m driving the ball well and I’m driving it pretty long, which is setting me up to attack the five par-5s, which are the key to scoring on this course. If I can be a little more clinical with my wedge play, I think I’ll have a really good chance over the weekend.”
After starting with a blistering 61 and then opening up a seven-shot lead on the field by getting to 16-under with five birdies in the first ten holes yesterday, Van Zyl was threatening to run away with the title before he came back to the field following dropped shots at the fourth and eighth, straying into water hazards at both.
“Unfortunately, a couple of loose shots on the back nine cost me a couple of shots,” reflected the 36-year-old from Johannesburg, who missed most of the 2014 campaign after requiring surgery on both his knees. “But, overall, I’m happy and enjoying it. We practise for hours and hours to be in this position, so it’s nice to be able to enjoy it.”
Fitzpatrick certainly enjoyed his second round a lot more than the first one, his flawless nine-under-par effort being achieved despite the Sheffield youngster requiring treatment on the fourth tee from his personal trainer, Kevin Duffy, for a niggling neck injury. “It’s a bit of a recurring problem, having flared up for the first time during the Scottish Open,” said Fitzpatrick. “Something didn’t feel right after I hit one particular shot early on today, but it was better after Kevin got me to do some exercises. It’s a mixture of both sides and is annoying, but I’m able to play on with it.”
On the home front, Stephen Gallacher is the leading Scot after a flawless 68 moved him to five-under – two ahead of David Drysdale after his 72. “It’s always good to keep a bogey off the card and hopefully now I can go out and shoot a low one over the weekend,” said Gallacher.
On his return after a five-week lay-off due to an eye infection, Richie Ramsay was pleased with how he played in his 72. But, sitting joint 62nd on one over – three better than Marc Warren as he improved by ten shots with a 69 that was more like the Scottish No 1 – the Aberdonian declared of the low scoring by the likes of leader Van Zyl: “I feel as though I am getting lapped.”