Ryan Fox, Matthieu Pavon and Erik van Rooyen will share a one-shot lead heading into the weekend at Ballyliffin Golf Club after the Rolex Series produced late drama on day two of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open hosted by the Rory Foundation.
New Zealander Fox entered the day with his nose in front but Swede Joakim Lagergren fired a 68 to hit the front and for a long time it looked like nobody would be able to catch him.
Fox had other ideas, however, coming home in 34 in a round of 69 to edge one ahead at eight under, where he was soon joined by Frenchman Pavon after a second consecutive 68.
Van Rooyen then left the best til last, finishing birdie-birdie in a course-record 65 to make it a three-way tie in top spot.
Lagergren was at seven under, a shot ahead of Major champion Danny Willett, his fellow Englishman Sam Horsfield and South African Zander Lombard.
There are three places available at the Open Championship for the leading players in the top ten who are not exempt and with South African Van Rooyen already heading to Carnoustie Golf Links, Fox, Pavon and Lagergren were in the box seat to claim them.
Fox played in last year's Open courtesy of a tie for fourth at this event and he continued his love affair with the Rolex Series, where he has four top tens in 11 starts.
“It's probably my first time in one of these events being right up there, probably leading or going to be in the last group which is going to be a nice experience tomorrow,” he said. “I'll just see what happens tomorrow. Looks like we're going to get another good day so I'm looking forward to it.”
This is Pavon's second 36-hole lead of the season after the NBO Oman Open in February but he will be aiming to finish higher than his tie for 31st in Muscat.
“The putter was pretty warm and it kept me in touch with the scorecard and then I started playing well on the back nine,” he said. “I love the crowd, the atmosphere of those Irish people and Scottish people. Like last year, the guys are so great out there, and keep pushing on every holes and I will enjoy that for two more days.”
Van Rooyen sealed his place at Carnoustie by finishing second at the Joburg Open before Christmas, one of three top tens this season since graduating from the Challenge Tour.
“I hit it beautifully tee-to-green all day, holing a few nice putts including a long one on my back nine as well, so I'm playing very nicely,” he said. “It's exciting being here. I love links golf even though I haven't played much, I'm fairly new to it but I absolutely love it.”
Rocco Forte Sicilian Open champion Lagergren made gains on the first, third and fourth to get to six under but when he bogeyed the eighth he was only in a share of top spot with Willett.
The duo then battled it out for the lead, with Lagergren putting an approach to tap-in range on the 13th and holing a six-footer on the next. He would bogey the 15th after finding trouble off the tee but the advantage was his when he got on the green at the 17th in two.
Fox turned in level par but when he birdied the tenth and added another on the 16th, he was in a share of the lead.
He was soon leapfrogged by Pavon, however, as the 25 year old followed up birdies on the 11th, 12th, 17th - and a bogey on the 16th - with an eagle from 15 feet on the par five fourth.
Fox put his approach on the last to five feet to join the lead and set the target and he led alone when Pavon bogeyed the sixth but a monster putt on the seventh made it a tie at the top once more.
Van Rooyen did not share the lead until he played his last stroke of the day but he made a blistering start, turning in 30 with gains on the first, fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth.
He found some nasty rough on the 11th to surrender his only bogey of the day but bounced back with a huge putt on the 12th before his big finish.
Willett birdied the 12th and nice chips on the 17th and fourth helped put the 2016 Masters Tournament champion into a share of the lead.
He found sand off the tee on the par three next and after leaving his second shot in the bunker, went on to record a double-bogey before bouncing back with a birdie and signing for a 70.
Lombard was one over for his round after six holes but stormed back with birdies on the 17th, 18th, third, fourth and eighth.
Qualifying School winner Horsfield edged up the leaderboard with birdies on the tenth, 17th and first and bounced back from a bogey on the second with a pair of gains before dropping another shot on the sixth.
Lee Westwood recovered from three bogeys in four holes from the 15th to sit at five under, a shot clear of Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Russell Knox and Peter Uihlein.
Tournament host Rory McIlroy was at one under alongside defending champion Jon Rahm.
Edoardo Molinari made the 21st hole-in-one of the season and the second of the week when he holed a six iron from 200 yards on the 14th.
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