Harrington maintains Irish interest

Dubliner takes centre stage as Ulster trio drop out of running at Royal Portrush

When Padraig Harrington sank a 10-footer for birdie on the 17th green at Royal Portrush last night the huge roar from the several thousand strong crowd following his progress at the Irish Open could probably have been heard across the sea on the nearby Skerry Islands.

The cheers contained a large element of relief because the Dubliner will go into today's final round within the sight of adding a second Irish title to the one he picked up at Adare Manor in 2007. And he can be assured of another gallery, probably exceeding the 10,000 mark, because Ulster's local heroes will only be pushing for place money.

The European Tour only agreed to take the Irish title to the north for the first time in more than 40 years following the US Open triumphs of Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke's win at Sandwich in The Open last year.

And the expectation level heaped upon them was reflected in the fact that tickets for all four days were sold out, the first time that has happened at any tournament since the Tour was formed in 1973.

But while the Ulster trio will still be guaranteed a following of friends and family today, the Southern Irishman Harrington will be the main attraction after shooting a level-par third-round 72 to get to within two shots of Welsh leader Jamie Donaldson, who will be an outsider having never won in 10 years on the European circuit.

Harrington has also not won on either the European or American Tours since picking up the third of his Major titles at the 2008 USPGA Championship.

But the two 67s he shot in the first two rounds at Portrush and the way he bounced back after making two early bogeys yesterday suggest that he is not far from returning to the winner's enclosure.

That is certainly the view of McDowell, who was one of Harrington's playing partners for the first two days at Portrush. He said: "I think he is back to his best. He has been working with my coach Pete Cowen for a year now and got control back in his game and control back in his great short game. He could be a big danger in The Open at Royal Lytham in a couple of weeks time."

This was a view reinforced by Harrington himself, even though he could have raised an even bigger cheer had he sunk a makeable putt on the 18th green. "I have been playing really well over the last couple of months. I am starting to putt a bit better and both parts of my game are good. I am putting a lot better and my long game is very solid again."

Although he had the better of the County Antrim weather by commanding the last tee time yesterday, Gregory Bourdy, the Frenchman who led at 12 under par on Friday night, dropped out of contention in dramatic style. First he was banned by a referee from using one of his wedges after he damaged the grooves in the clubface by kicking it in frustration, and later ran up an eight at the 17th after putting his drive into a bush.

Today Harrington's main opponents will be Donaldson, whose highlight of a 69 was an eagle at the second, and Londoner Anthony Wall, who shot a 67 but has not won since the 2000 Alfred Dunhill Championship at Houghton in Johannesburg.

Surprisingly Wall's five-under-par effort was not the lowest on a day when Portrush bared its teeth and lived up to its feared reputation as one of the world's toughest links courses. That honour befell 23-year-old Dane Thorbjorn Olesen, who shot a 66 when the wind was at its toughest and torrential rain fell throughout his round.

Olesen is a name to mark for the future. In March he won the Sicilian Open on a wind-exposed clifftop layout very similar to Portrush and unlike many of his fellow pros he never worries what conditions the weather gods throw at him.

He said: "What is the point of being paid to play golf if you can't have fun. Today's conditions were the toughest I have ever played in, but I always like the challenge of playing in the wind.And I will be happy in the fourth round if there's more wind and rain."

Such good humour in the face of adversity is not a trait that McIlroy has often shown since he left The Open at Sandwich last summer and ranted about how he dislikes playing in wind – unlike Clarke and McDowell. That remark has been picked up regularly by critics during his recent run of four missed cuts in five tournaments, including the US Open and PGA Championship at Wentworth.

But playing yesterday in the worst of the weather, McIlroy shot a one- under-par 71 and admitted he is now trying to get that one key negative mental weakness out of his game and regarded his third round as a step in the right direction.

"I started well and the first holes were downwind," said McIlroy, whose two opening birdies were followed by a dropped shot at the third.

"The rest of the course played very tough," he added. "I gave myself a few chances but just didn't take them, but in those conditions, I think a 71 was a pretty good score.

"I just kept my head down and kept grinding it out. I just tried to play good shots and make par and waited for the birdies to happen. And I felt I did it really well."