By Simon Evans
PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland (Reuters) – Ireland’s Shane Lowry proved master of the Dunluce links for the second successive day to move into a share of the halfway lead with American J.B. Holmes at the British Open on Friday.
But there was a bitter-sweet exit for Rory McIlroy, who missed the cut despite bouncing back from his nightmare first round 79 with an excellent 65.
McIlroy will miss out on the weekend along with Tiger Woods, who shot a one-under 70 but still ended six-over for his two rounds.
A flurry of birdies early in a sizzling outward nine of 31 looked like giving the 32-year-old Lowry from across the border the outright lead but a bogey at the 18th left him on eight under after successive rounds of 67.
Holmes, the overnight leader, had the better of the weather earlier in the day and consolidated his challenge with a 68.
They will play together in the last group on Saturday in what promises to be a battle of the beards.
Once again the par-71 layout on the Antrim coast proved tough terrain for the world’s best golfers, although there were some low numbers on a congested leaderboard.
English duo Tommy Fleetwood and Lee Westwood, both looking for their first majors, made hay with rounds of 68 moving them to seven under while South African Justin Harding’s posted the lowest round of the day, six birdies and an eagle helping him to a six-under 65 to move three off the lead.
Alongside Harding are Australian Cameron Smith, who scored a 66, and England’s Justin Rose after a 67.
South Africa’s Dylan Frittelli, who only secured his place last week, was on five under after his charge was tempered by a double-bogey at the 17th and a bogey on the final hole.
Holmes left several other bigger-name Americans in the shade again although Brooks Koepka, the world number one, and 2017 winner Jordan Spieth, are well-placed to challenge on five under.
There will be no Woods or Phil Mickelson on Saturday, meaning it is the first time in the 83 majors in which the two American heavyweights have both appeared that neither survived for the weekend.
Lowry, given loud support by the packed galleries, opened with three successive birdies, made another at the fifth and another at the eighth to move into the lead outright.
When his ball, sporting the four-leafed clover emblem, disappeared after a monster putt on the 10th he held a two-shot lead but three-putted the 14th. A super par-save at the 17th kept him ahead but he paid for an aggressive chip on the last and missed a 12-foot par putt.
“I’m disappointed with the bogey but I’m where I want to be and happy with my two days’ work,” said Lowry, from County Offaly in Ireland. “I knew the rain was coming so I wanted to get a fast start. I’m very, very excited for tomorrow.
“Next week I’ll be in Memphis and there will be 10 men and a dog following me. There will be thousands of Irish people roaring me on. Will be amazing.”
Fleetwood grew up playing links golf at Southport and delighted the crowd with a birdie on the 18th. Westwood, 46, has had to wait a lot longer for his first major, having had 18 top-10 finishes but never a victory.
But with his girlfriend on his bag, he rolled back the years with a brilliant round, including a 65-foot birdie at the 16th.
“There’s too much ground to cover before Sunday night. There’s a long way to go in this tournament,” Westwood said.
Koepka suffered a cool day with the putter but was happy to be in the pack. “Right where I want to be and close enough to make a run this weekend,” the four-time major winner said.
Late in the day all eyes turned to local favourite McIlroy who produced a thrilling counter-attack in a bid to make the cut after his sorry 79 on Thursday.
McIlroy hit three straight birdies after the turn but a bogey on the par-three 13th disrupted his momentum.
A birdie on the 16th offered a glimmer of hope but he failed to get back the stroke he needed, wasting an excellent fairway position on the 18th as he missed the green to the left, leaving himself too much to do.
(Reporting by Simon Evans, writing by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond and Christian Radnedge)