Professional / Euro Tour

Halfway through Irish Open, Danny Willett and Marc Warren share lead; Rory McIlroy 1 back

Danny Willett, pictured at the 2016 Irish Open
Danny Willett, pictured at the 2016 Irish Open (Getty Images)

STRAFFAN, Ireland – Have you heard the one about the golfers from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

It’s no joke.

Danny Willett, Marc Warren and Rory McIlroy are the trio at the top of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open leaderboard after 36 holes at the K Club. There’s been nothing comical about their golf over the first two days, either.

Willett, the 2016 Masters champion, returned a 1-under 71 on Friday to get to 8 under. Warren was five strokes better with a 66 in Round 2 to join Willett at the top. McIlroy lurks one shot behind at 7 under after a 2-under 70.

McIlroy had the most to celebrate. He made his first cut in his last four attempts at his national championship and the event that his foundation hosts. His best finish in the Irish Open is T-7 in 2008, his professional debut. He’s also looking for his first win this season while many question whether World No. 1 Jason Day has left McIlroy in his slipstream.

“I feel like my game is in good shape,” McIlroy said. “I just need something go click, and that could be the momentum to get off and running to have another great summer.”

Rory McIlroy is a shot back of the leaders after 36 holes of the 2016 Irish Open. / Getty Images

The former World No. 1 – and current No. 3 – might be leading if he’d managed to limit the dropped shots, something that has plagued him this season.

“Just made too many bogeys today, which is why the score is a little bit higher,” McIlroy said. “I played well again. I drove the ball well. I hit a lot of good iron shots, good wedge shots. There were a couple soft bogeys in there which I want to try and reduce over the weekend. I’m making enough birdies to win this tournament.”

Willett made five birdies in his round, but dropped four shots, too.

“Pretty steady, scrappy at times,” Willett said. “The golf course is tricky. You have a lot of crosswinds. The rough is a little bit juicy. Key is hitting fairways, and if you don’t, you find yourself out of position and you’re going to have to get up-and-down for par.

“I dropped a couple of silly shots out there, but not too bad: 8 under par, tied for the lead. I’m in a pretty good position heading into the weekend.”

Warren is looking for some consistency after a poor start to his season. The Scotsman has made just two cuts out of six events this campaign, with a T-19 in the True Thailand Classic in March his best showing.

“I think everything was pretty solid overall,” Warren said. “Kept the ball in play off the tee, which is obviously important in these conditions, and short game is good.”

The Scotsman has dropped out of the world top 50 – he’s now 132nd – and is struggling to cope with the change in schedule that reduced status brings.

“The schedule this year feels as if I’ve been stop/start a lot,” Warren said. “I’m not top-50 in the world and don’t get into the events in America to fill in some of the downtime we have on The European Tour. I feel I was more rusty than anything else.”

The 35-year-old will be expected to play a bit part against the top billing of McIlroy and Willett. It would be foolish to write Warren off, though. He has three European Tour wins under his belt.

However, all eyes will on a McIlroy–Willett battle, a resumption of last year’s race to European No. 1, which McIlroy won.

“We had a great battle for the Race to Dubai last year,” McIlroy said. “I want to beat him to that again this year. He’s obviously got a big lead on me, so I need to take advantage of tournaments like this which are big enough prize funds. There’s incentive enough even if he is the Masters champion.”

We await the punch line with much interest.

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