FOUR-time major winner Rory McIlroy and reigning Masters champion Danny Willet are set for a weekend showdown at the Irish Open, just one shot separating the pair with 36 holes to go.
McIlroy, whose career record in his home Open is dismal, sits one behind joint leaders Willett and Scotland's Marc Warren after signing for a second round of 2-under 70 to be 7-under for the tournament staged at The K Club.
Willett and Warren are at 8-under, the Englishman with rounds of 65-71, while Warren posted the equal best round of Friday, a 66, to go with an opening 70.
But all the focus is on McIlroy and Willett heading to the weekend as the Northern Irishman tries to overcome three consecutive missed cuts in the tournament and a career best finish of seventh.
The former World Number One admitted in his pre-tournament press conference the Irish Open is one that is important to have on his career CV.
"The Irish Open always was, but even more so now, one of the most important weeks of the year for me," he said.
"My performances haven't been what I'd want but it's a tournament I would love to win one day.
"I feel like my game is in good enough shape to do that."
SPIETH'S AMAZING MARSHMALLOW TRICK:
McIlroy proved that last statement to be true over the opening two rounds with some superlative ball striking, 17 greens in regulation in the opening round and 13 on day two.
However, while he holed some crucial long putts on Friday it is on the greens where he loses ground to the field, though, he says if he stays aggressive he feels he can overcome that this week.
"I'm making enough birdies," he said after his round. "I think I made six birdies yesterday. I made six birdies today. So the birdies are there. I just need to limit the mistakes.
“Four bogeys today, a couple of really soft bogeys as well. I know that I'm hitting enough good shots and I'm holing enough putts. If I can live with the mistakes, I feel like I'll be right there.
“I know that I'm making enough birdies to definitely win this tournament.”
McIlroy is relishing the prospect of chasing down US Masters champion Willett after the two were involved in a controversy at the end of last year.
After the Irishman injured his ankle prior to the Open Championship, the European Tour gave McIlroy special dispensation to compete in the end of year Race to Dubai Series despite the fact he hadn't competed in the minimum number of tournaments to be eligible.
Willett, who was second in the standings at the time of the announcement and eventually finished runner-up to McIlroy, said he felt McIlroy had been given an advantage.
"I appreciate that him playing makes a massive difference for the Tour and you have to kind of let him off with the events,” Willett said at the final event in Dubai last year the week after McIlroy skipped the previous week's BMW Masters in China.
“But certainly he has more of an advantage over the guys who have played all three [previous Final Series events] and this will be the fourth.
“There’s a lot of traveling, a lot of golf, time changes, sleeping patterns; everything like that can really take its toll, especially at the end of a season.
“I think having had a week off might have benefited him.”
For his part McIlroy is keen to deliver a similar result over Willett this year and appears keen to begin the process this week.
“We had a great battle for the Race to Dubai last year,” McIlroy said of his rivalry with Willett. “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.”
Willett, too, will be keen to make his mark with McIlroy in the field and said after his second round he likes his position with 36 holes to go.
“Pretty steady, scrappy at times,” he said in summing up his Friday play.
“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.”
Among the Australians Brett Rumford is the pick after steady opening rounds of 69-72 to be 3-under and five behind the leaders.
Rumford is a previous winner of the title, beating Padraig Harrington and Raphael Jacquelin in 2004, and has relied heavily on his famed short game to stay in contention this week.
After finding just 11 greens in the first round Rumford made up for his sins by taking only 27 putts though slipped on day two with 32 strokes.
The West Australian and fellow veteran Richard Green were the only two Australians to make the cut, Green's second round 70 a welcome turnaround from his opening 75.
Marcus Fraser, Andrew Dodt, Scott Hend and Nathan Holman were all well outside the cut line, all four shooting over par on both days.
PETER KNIGHT SHOWS HOW THE BASEBALL SWING CAN HELP YOUR GOLF GAME:
IRISH OPEN SECOND ROUND LEADERBOARD:
|T5||JACO VAN ZYL||-4|
|T8||BRETT RUMFORD (AUS)||-3|
|T45||RICHARD GREEN (AUS)||+1|
|MC||ANDREW DODT (AUS)|
|MC||MARCUS FRASER (AUS)|
|MC||SCOTT HEND (AUS)|
|MC||NATHAN HOLMAN (AUS)|
Want video tips delivered straight to your inbox? Subscribe to iseekgolf.com newsletters.