Hole in one hero Willett sets course record to move second in Irish Open

Danny Willett after his record breaking round at the Irish Open
Danny Willett after his record breaking round at the Irish Open
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A second hole-in-one in the space of two months helped Sheffield golfer Danny Willett set a course record of 63 and vault into contention for a second European Tour title in the Irish Open.

But Willett will have to overhaul Finnish leader Mikko Ilonen and hold off a determined challenge from home favourite Graeme McDowell to win the £265,000 first prize at Fota Island on Sunday.

Willett’s previous ace earnt him a V40 Cross Country from the tournament sponsors in the final round of the Volvo China Open at the end of April.

And although the 26-year-old did not win anything for his “slam dunk” effort on the seventh hole at Fota Island - a £65,000 BMW 640 Gran Coupe was on offer on the 13th - it sparked a brilliant round which left him just one behind Ilonen on 11 under par.

“We had a perfect number, 168 yards with an eight iron but you never expect it to slam dunk,” Willett said. “That was a bit of a bonus.”

Fresh from finishing 45th on his US Open debut at Pinehurst last week, Willett had already birdied the fourth and added another at the eighth to reach the turn in 32.

The former English Amateur champion’s challenge was slowed by a run of four straight pars on the back nine, but he then birdied four of the last five holes to beat the previous record of 64 set by Ilonen on Thursday.

“We’ve been playing great for a long time but could not seem to get anything going on the greens,” added Willett, whose sole Tour title to date came in the BMW International Open in 2012. “But holing a wedge yesterday (for an eagle on the second) and an eight iron today certainly helps.

“Coming from the US Open last week it was a slightly different mentality, it was quite tricky to stop playing 20 feet away from the flags and on the first day we were too cautious.”

Willett will tee off for his final round at 12.30pm on Sunday, partnering leader Ilonen.

His fellow Sheffield golfer Matt Fitzpatrick is tied for 47th heading into the final round of his first tournament as a professional.

Fitzpatrick shot a one under 70 on Saturday to sit two under for the tournament.

After a bogey on the second, the 19-year-old followed up with three birdies from the next five holes ensured a strong first nine.

He continued his trend of steady par play on the back nine only to bogey the 15th.

Fitzpatrick is three shots off the top 20 heading into the final round.

McDowell’s challenge for a first Irish Open title at the 13th attempt looked to be petering out after he bogeyed the eighth and ninth to reach the turn in 37.

But the former US Open champion gave himself a talking to on the 10th and his patience paid off with birdies on the 11th, 16th and 17th to card a 69 and lie two off the lead on 10 under.

Ilonen remained on course to claim his fourth European Tour title with a wire-to-wire victory thanks to a birdie on the last to complete a round of 69.

And the 34-year-old former British Amateur champion - who won at Open venue Hoylake in 2000 - admitted his chances would be improved by partnering Willett rather than McDowell in front of the massive home crowds on Sunday.

“It will help,” said Ilonen, who lost a play-off to Sergio Garcia in the Qatar Masters in January. “Graeme will be in front of us but it will be the same as today. I have been leading all the way and handling the pressure pretty well so far.

“I was off here and there today, especially with a couple of drives in the beginning on the par fives. All in all I kept it together nicely, I felt good on the course and pretty pleased with how I am placed.”