Rory McIlroy birdied his last two holes to move into contention for a second Irish Open title as most of the players in front of him faltered in the third round on Saturday.
McIlroy finished off a 6-under 66 with a short birdie putt on the 18th to push into third place, two shots behind leader Hurly Long of Germany.
That’s a better spot than he had expected, given that he started the day eight shots off the lead.
“I felt like I maybe needed to go a couple lower to get myself right in it,” 2016 winner McIlroy said while more than a dozen players were still on the course. “But the guys at the top haven’t really went away from the field that much today.”
And they didn’t get anything going on the back nine at The K Club, either.
Long needed a birdie on the last hole to restore a two-shot advantage over McIlroy after a 70 gave him a 13-under total of 203. Jordan Smith, who held a share of the overnight lead with Shubhankar Sharma, then also birdied the par-5 18th to move into second place, one shot behind Long.
Long has never won a European tour event and is ranked 252nd in the world, so McIlroy might like his chances playing in front of a home crowd that will likely be boisterous throughout the final round.
But Long, whose best finish this year is a tie for 30th, said he won’t be intimidated.
“Last year at The Belfry I was leading after two rounds, and there were ginormous crowds out there as well,” Long said. “So I can take something from that. I’ve got a good attitude. I know it’s going to be way more difficult tomorrow than it was even today but you can feed off that just as well.”
McIlroy had his only blip on the par-5 16th, where he rescued a bogey after finding water. But he responded with the two birdies.
“Last night I thought I was maybe a little bit too far behind and out of it, but I played a really good round of golf today to get myself back in it,” McIlroy said.
Sharma struggled throughout the day and finished with a 75 that included a double bogey and three bogeys to go with two birdies.
Shane Lowry, who was born about 45 minutes away in Clara, was five shots back in a tie for 13th after a 72. While Lowry may still have an outside chance, he’s not expecting it to be easy to chase down Ryder Cup teammate McIlroy.
“He’s going to be the man to beat tomorrow,” Lowry said.
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