McIlroy and McDowell are confident they can grasp prize in Ballyliffin
The sun-scorched Glashedy Links left them scratching their heads but home stars Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell still believe they can solve an intriguing Ballyliffin links puzzle and challenge for the grand prize tomorrow.
On a day when Padraig Harrington lurched from disaster to the edge of glorious salvation only to double bogey the last and miss the cut by one, Lowry and adopted Irishman Simon Thornton lead a quintet of surviving home players on two-under par.
They're six shots adrift of New Zealander Ryan Fox, Frenchman Matthieu Pavon and South African Erik Van Rooyen at a course that's proving an elusive and unpredictable opponent.
But with just nine shots covering the field, they know a round in the mid-60s today could be worth much gold.
That's certainly what McIlroy is thinking despite finishing with two bogeys for a 73.
And like fellow Ulsterman McDowell, who had to grind like never before to make the one-over-par cut with a shot to spare, he's finding the greens more difficult to read than Finnegan's Wake.
After taking 34 putts, McIlroy said: "The game felt okay but I didn't hole anything again on the greens so hopefully I can turn that around over the weekend."
Despite being seven shots behind, he still thinks he can win a Dubai Duty Free Irish Open that attracted an 18,904 crowd yesterday.
"If you see a few drop, you can get some confidence and be a bit more confident in your reads," he said after single-putting just two greens.
"I'll just keep plugging away and giving myself opportunities and hopefully they will fall over the weekend."
It's finding the greens in regulation that's the problem and with the fairways narrow, fiery and difficult to hold, Harrington paid the ultimate price, three-putting the 18th for double bogey and a 78 that left him a shot outside the cut mark.
He was three-over for the day, one-under for the tournament, with six holes to play but lost a ball on the 13th - it was found three seconds after the regulation five-minute search - and followed a double-bogey seven there with a three-putt bogey at the next to find himself on two-over.
Salvation looked at hand when he made a birdie bomb at the 16th and then almost eagled the 17th to get back to level.
But he fatally found rough at the last, hacked out and ended up three-putting from long range to miss out when two putts would have been enough.
"I don't know what the percentage of fairways hit is but I'm sure it's minuscule and you have no control coming into firm greens out of the rough, even though it's all playable," Harrington said, lamenting his three-putts on the back nine.
"Unless you're holing a few putts, it's hard to make a lot of birdies.
"The fairways are 18 yards wide. The toughest hole in golf is the 18th at Carnoustie, that's 40, 50 yards wide at one place. It's just hard to get it on the fairway."
Overnight leader Fox shot a 69 and Frenchman Pavon a 68 before South Africa's Van Rooyen birdied the last for a 65 to make it a three-way tie on eight-under par and give many hope that they can still make a run at the title.
They include Lowry, who was beaming after finishing with a birdie for his 70 having limped home on day one.
"I finished very badly yesterday so I was conscious of that and finished strong today," Lowry said. "I'm a lot happier today than I was yesterday.
"I could be a couple better but I'm happy with that because you have to play the patience game out there.
"I don't think it's going to be low scoring here, so if I can shoot in the 60s tomorrow, I can have a great chance."
McDowell dug deep for a 73 to make it on level par but confessed that he was way off the mark when he predicted a 20 to 25-under-par winning score.
"My assessment of this golf course after the Pro-Am was certainly incorrect," said the Portrush man, who felt his 20-foot par save on the 16th was key.
"Nobody can understand why this course is not being ripped to shreds - you're not going to get it more benign than this - but the long and short of it is that it's very hard to keep it out of the bunkers off the tee, and the greens are very hard to read.
"It's not a circus course, it's just tricky to judge what to hit off the tee and the greens have me scratching my head.
"It would have been a very frustrating cut to miss because you can't make a move from the couch but you can make a move from the morning and I really believe there's a low score out there."
Paul Dunne made the cut on the one-over-par mark after a 72 and decided that he might as well go on the attack with the driver today.
He said: "It's so hard to hit the fairway anyway I figure if you lob wedge in from the rough you've a better chance than an eight-iron and my short game is really sharp at the minute so if I do miss the fairway with the driver, I'll be able to get round the green and fancy myself to save par.
"So probably a lot more drivers off the tee and see where that leads me."
It was all about survival but even after acing the 14th to get back to level, Italy's Edoardo Molinari suffered a closing six which sent him scuttling home, one shot from salvation.