Howell and caddie join up to upstage mediocre McIlroy

Ulsterman's double-bogey start sets tone for frustrating day as bagman dispute rumbles on

Rarely can a round of golf between two professionals have produced a greater sense of irony than the one that teed off late yesterday morning in the Irish Open at Killarney.

It featured the 22-year-old Rory McIlroy, the recent winner of the US Open who – now that he has won his first golfing major – has been widely, if rather somewhat hastily, tipped to become the sport's next Tiger Woods. His opponent was the Englishman David Howell, a 35-year-old two-time Ryder Cup winner who in 2006 won two prestigious titles, the HSBC Champions in Shanghai and the European Tour's summer flagship PGA title at Wentworth.

Howell's golf has been in a trough ever since as he has slipped from a career-high ninth in the world to 282nd, instead gaining a new reputation as a dry-witted TV pundit and entertaining after-dinner speaker.

And no doubt his round yesterday will be relived in future over many a glass of brandy. For while McIlroy opened with a double bogey and struggled to a 72, Howell moved into a three-way tie at the top of the leaderboard with a seven-under-par 64. But that was only half the plot.

For, at the end of the week in which McIlroy had gone to extreme lengths on Twitter to defend his caddie, JP Fitzgerald, against accusations of poor course management, Howell's bagman yesterday was the man the young Ulsterman sacked less than a year after turning professional. Had Gordon Faulkner stayed with McIlroy, he would have earned over half a million pounds from the youngster's winnings worldwide. Instead he has not enjoyed a steady job since until joining forces with Howell at the beginning of the summer.

And McIlroy should be grateful that last night Faulkner chose to play the diplomat over the role he had found himself in. "Obviously I was disappointed when I lost the job with Rory," he said, "because I could see what great potential he had. We have remained friends and I have nothing but admiration for what he has achieved.

"But I am working for David Howell now and I am very happy. He's been playing very well lately and played great today. I don't want to get involved in what's been going on here. It's got very personal and it has nothing to do with me."

Howell, once reckoned to have the smoothest putting stroke on the European Tour, certainly rediscovered that touch on the sharply sloping Killarney greens, stroking home seven birdie chances. And his winner's pedigree will make him the favourite to land today's first-place prize of £250,000.

But his co-leaders, the Yorkshireman Simon Dyson and the Australian Richard Green, are no mugs, withthe latter insisting his ability to "get fired up" when in contention in the last round would be his greatest strength. However, in 15 years on Tour, the left-hander from Melbourne has only won one significant title and that was 14 years ago, when he won the Dubai Desert Classic.

Dyson, who had just onebogey in his 67 on a day when heavy crosswinds deterred many of his rivals, has a poor record at previous Irish Opens, but he did finish third in the European Tour's strongest field of the year at Wentworth in May.

Another English candidate not to be ruled out is last year's Irish Open winner, Ross Fisher.

After a 70 yesterday, Fisher was only lying three shots off the lead, and few Irish fans will forget how he shot 65 in the final round in 2010 to dash the home hopes of Padraig Harrington.

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