Rory McIlroy misses cut as John Rahm becomes new Irish Open favourite

A frustrating day for Rory McIlroy as he missed the cut at the Irish Open at Portstewart
A frustrating day for Rory McIlroy as he missed the cut at the Irish Open at Portstewart

THE north coast weather took a walk down the traditional July route yesterday morning as the winds started to gust and a fine rain – the type that soaks you right through – moved in, and Rory McIlroy also beat a now familiar path out of the exit door at the halfway stage of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.

The tournament’s host came to Portstewart this week as defending champion, having take the title at the K Club last May, but that stellar performance aside he has struggled on home soil and has now missed four of the last five cuts in his national championship.

It wasn’t meant to be like this, with the excitement of Wednesday’s pro-am and the party atmosphere of Thursday’s first round proper giving way to a stunned silence at lunchtime yesterday when McIlroy bowed out at one-over par, four shots too many to hang around for the weekend.

As first round joint leaders Daniel Im and Benjamin Hebert added 67s to their opening 65s to lead by one on 13-under from new tournament favourite John Rahm, the old tournament favourite admitted it is a pressurised week in terms of his hosting duties, but wasn’t offering up that as an excuse for his poor showing.

“It’s definitely not a normal week for me but I’m proud to be part of this tournament,” said McIlroy.

“It has become a much bigger tournament. I just wish I could be part of it over the weekend.”

It took the world number four all of 23 holes over two days to get on the right side of par for the first time, with back-to-back birdies at the 13th and 14th raising cheers among the bleary-eyed public, but not easing nerves.

At no stage was he inside the projected cut mark, and the galleries were nervous, something that came to the attention of Sky’s normally upbeat on-course commentator Wayne ‘Radar’ Riley.

“It’s really quiet out here,” the Australian told those watching on TV, and those not too subtly listening in from a few paces away.

“They are all hoping and praying their favourite son can make the cut.”

Those prayers always looked likely to be unanswered, and when a bogey was put on the card at the short sixth, McIlroy’s 15th, a miracle was in need of being conjured up and his shoulders slumped a little.

A double-bogey six followed at the eighth and Rory’s race was run, with the baton handed on to the later Irish starters to keep the crowds enthralled, as well as McIlroy’s big-name playing partners Jon Rahm and Hideki Matsuyama, both of whom excelled yesterday to get right in the mix.

“It’s great that there’s some big guys that are up near the top of the leaderboard,” said the host, just moments before other Irish heroes Padraig Harrington, Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell headlined the afternoon session.

“A lot of guys are in with a good chance today to really make this tournament exciting. It’s a pity I’m not part of that.”

With McIlroy exiting stage left in a hugely impressive courtesy car, the mantle of local hero turned to Graeme McDowell, who was heading out in more favourable conditions.

And ‘Our Graeme’ gave us a quick reminder of his class by picking up a birdie at the first hole in the exalted company of Justin Rose and Tommy Fleetwood to move to six-under, seven shots off the pace set by unheralded American Daniel Im and Frenchman Benjamin Hebert.

However, a hooked second at the par-five fourth sent scoreboard attendants, marshals, caddies et al looking for a ball that would eventually be found in ‘the munchies’, and a double-bogey ensued.

From there on McDowell was playing Russian roulette with the cut mark and not even a helping hand from a fan, who took an approach shot full on the wrist and diverted it back onto the 17th green, could ease the nerves.

Another double-bogey on the last took ‘Gmac’ from a shot inside the cut and an early start tomorrow to a weekend off in his old stomping ground of Portrush.

Rose and Fleetwood sailed through to at least ensure more big names are in the title mix, although an Irish victory looks improbable with Paul Dunne the leading runner at eight-under, five shots off the pace in a tie for 12th.

Harrington is one shot further back, while Lowry bogeyed the last two but will still be around for the expected huge weekend crowds to follow.

They will also be following Rahm in their droves, and he could emerge to fill the hero void over the next couple of days.

The massive Spaniard strolls around the course a bit like the star of a Western, Juan Wayne perhaps, but he is a serious talent and has the charisma to match.

His 12-under halfway total sees him a shot off the lead and marked up as the 2/1 favourite with 36 holes to play and, given how comfortable he feels on the north coast, it could take something special to stop him joining an illustrious list of Irish Open winners from Spain that includes Seve Ballesteros, Jose-Maria Olazabal and Sergio Garcia.

“I know how prestigious this event is,” said Rahm.

“The fact that it’s got Rory’s name, it makes it even more important. I know the Spanish history in this tournament too is quite large. It’s definitely a special week.”

Rahm is believed to have been lapping up all that the north coast has to offer, having developed a fondness for the area when he visited for the British Amateur three years ago, and he has also honed in on a favourite dish in one of the local eating establishments.

“I think the last three nights I had the exact same dinner. T-bone steak, rare. I don’t think that’s going to change. I keep saying I’m going to eat seafood and the closer I get, the more my mind is set to steak again.”

What else would you expect of a man who walks the course with the air of a cowboy and stalks the top of leaderboards like a trained assassin?

He might not win come tomorrow night, but I wouldn’t want to be the man to try and stop him.

Yesterday may not have panned the way it was planned, but there is still much to look forward to over the weekend. Hopefully the weather can break with tradition too.