As another Irishman, Padraig Harrington, handed himself a timely boost ahead of the season’s third major in Southport, where he won in 2008, by securing a share of the halfway lead in Ayrshire, McIlroy found himself heading down the M6 two days earlier than he’d hoped after adding this event to his schedule to get much-needed competitive rounds under his belt. It had looked as though the world No 4 would be around for the weekend after going out in three-under to get back to one-under for the tournament following his wedge problems in Thursday’s 74, but, for the second day in a row, he came a cropper at the par-4 13th en route to a 71.
It was sand, not water, that did the damage this time around as McIlroy saw his third shot tumble back into a greenside trap, the result being his second 6 of the event there. That dropped him back outside the cut and he didn’t even manage to threaten the hole with a five-foot birdie putt at the last that might have got him through to the weekend. He ended up missing out by two shots as the cut fell at one-under.
After suffering similar disappointments in the US Open at Erin Hills last month, then the Irish Open a week ago, the 28-year-old isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders heading into the season’s third major.
“I’m frustrated but, at the same time, I thought I saw some good signs out there,” he said, trying to take something positive out of his latest early exit. “I thought my putting improved this week compared to last week, though the one at the last was terrible. I’m just waiting for some sort of spark, something to go right, and the last couple weeks haven’t been like that. I’ve just got to keep plugging away and hopefully it turns around next week.
“I’ll probably head down to Birkdale early, get some early practice rounds and try to get myself ready for that golf course. It’s frustrating that I’m not getting to play the weekend, but I’d be much more worried if I went out there and shot a couple of 76s and be nowhere near trying to make the cut. I feel like I’ve just been on the wrong side of them (fine margins) the past couple of weeks, and hope-fully next week I’m on the right side of them.”
Referring to missing a chunk of the season due to a niggling rib injury, McIlroy, who was joined by defending champion Alex Noren in crashing out, added: “I would have loved to have played more rounds going into, not just the Open, but, if I go to Birkdale next week and I shoot a couple of even pars, I don’t think I’ll be that far away and I feel I am capable of shooting something in the 60s and getting myself into contention.”
Harrington, who made a successful defence of the Claret Jug at Birkdale nine years ago, could have even more reason to be looking forward to his return next week if he keeps up the form that has earned him a share of pole position with Englishman Callum Shinkwin and Germany’s Alexander Knappe on nine-under-par.
After adding a “boring” 68 to a more adventurous 67 on Thursday, Harrington insisted he’ll have no complaints if his best days are in the past, having reached the conclusion that he can be quite content with three majors and a total of 31 professional victories around the world. “I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m pretty much done with what I’ve done in the game of golf,” said the 45-year-old. “Why bother beating myself up when I enjoy being out here? If you told me I was going to win another six majors, that might be different. One more wouldn’t be a huge deal. It’s not going to change me and there’s no point in me fighting it at this stage. I’m enjoying what I am doing and kind of letting it happen.
“When I came on the Tour, I played with some of the elder statesmen and used to watch them fighting it and think, ‘why are you fighting it?’ They’d say, ‘well, if I can win one more tournament’. I’d hate to be that guy and I think I get respect from the younger players because of that.”
While Harrington might not be surprised to be sitting at the top of the leaderboard in this Rolex Series event, the same certainly doesn’t apply to either Shinkwin or Knappe.
Shinkwin, a 24-year-old from Watford, had missed six cuts, been disqualified twice and also suffered a retirement in a miserable nine-run event before finding a bit of form in the French Open then taking that into the Irish Open and now giving himself even more cause for optimism on the back of opening rounds of 67 and 68 here. “I’ve just found a consistency in my game really, a little piece of the puzzle missing,” said the 2015 Challenge Tour graduate.
As for Knappe, making it to the weekend here ended a run of eight missed cuts for the 28-year-old from near Dortmund. “You never should give up,” he said after signing for a best-of-the-day 65, illuminated by a burst that produced an eagle and four birdies in five holes.