Rory McIlroy on Day 2 of the Irish Open
Rory McIlroy believes he is yet to hit top gear in pursuit of a first win of the year after setting up a weekend battle with Masters champion Danny Willett in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.
McIlroy had missed the cut in his home event for the last three years but added a second round of 70 to his opening 67 at The K Club to finish just a shot behind Willett and Scotland's Marc Warren.
Warren surged through the field with a superb 66 to join Willett on eight under par, the world number nine carding five birdies and four bogeys in a 71 in his second tournament since claiming a maiden major title at Augusta.
McIlroy is the only member of the world's top five without a win in 2016 and admitted he was frustrated at what he felt was "negative spin" being put on his results, which include six top-10 finishes in 10 events.
After 36 holes:
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"I knew I was coming in here playing pretty well so I never thought the cut was going to be an issue. I'm excited to be up there with a chance to win," said the world number three, who has slipped more than four points behind number one Jason Day in the rankings after the Australian's seventh win in his last 17 events in the Players Championship.
"The Irish Open is one of the most important tournaments of my year and I'd dearly love to win it one day. I feel like I've given myself a great chance."
Asked if he could find another gear over the weekend, the tournament host added: "I do. There's definitely more in there. Whether I get to show that could depend on the conditions, but I just feel like there's something waiting there to click and when it does, I could be off and running and that could be the catapult or the momentum that I need to have another great summer."
Willett beat the scoring average for the field by an incredible 8.9 shots with an opening 65, but struggled to reproduce that form despite again getting the best of the weather conditions.
"It wasn't bad, a little bit scrappy," the 28-year-old said. "It was windy at times and there were a couple of sneakier flags out there as well so you can't come off being joint leader and be too unhappy."
Asked what he can go on to achieve in his career, Willett added: "I have no idea. I really don't. You practice, you work hard and you do what I've already done and it's just now more of the same.
"You kind of re-evaluate things and make sure you don't get too complacent. We've worked very hard to get where we've got, so don't stop working hard and hopefully you can rack up a few more.
"Other people think you're able to come out and win every week because you won a major, but we know that doesn't happen."
Warren has yet to record a top-10 finish on the European Tour this season and had missed the cut in five of his last seven starts, but hopes a run of events will help him recapture the form which took him into the world's top 50 last year.
"I felt in the last three events as if I was close to some decent form," said the 35-year-old from Glasgow, who has fallen to 132nd in the rankings. "But the schedule feels as if I've been stop-start a lot by not being top 50 in the world and getting into the events in America to fill in some of the downtime we have on the European Tour.
"I worked extremely hard to get in and around the top 50 and it's nice to know you can do it, so it's just about finding the right formula to do it more often."
England's Matthew Southgate shared second place with McIlroy before two late bogeys meant he had to settle for a 69 to finish five under par.
Southgate missed six cuts in his first seven events this season after regaining his European Tour card via the qualifying school in November, just four months after being diagnosed with testicular cancer.
The 27-year-old from Southend said: "Looks like I'll be playing with Rory tomorrow, so that will be an experience in itself playing in the circus that will follow Rory. I'm looking forward to it, fingers crossed.
"There's a very good chance I'll just be shaking his hand on the first tee and going about my business, to be fair. I think if I get caught up in the moment of watching Rory and playing with Rory, it's not going to help my game. We'll have lunch afterwards and have a chat then maybe.
"I feel like the last few weeks on the Tour have been tough weather, so I think that's definitely helped coming in here. When I play my best generally is when it's a bit windy and a few other players don't deal with it so well. It suits me, it's not a big deal."