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Northern Irish players leading, contending and out of the Open

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SANDWICH, England – Through 36 windy holes at Royal St. George’s it’s been a tale of three Ulsterman, something akin to the good, the bad and the ugly.

First the good, with Darren Clarke leading the way for the nation of 1.8 million as well as the field after matching rounds of 68 put him into a tie for the lead with Lucas Glover. It’s the first time the 42-year-old has been in the hunt at the game’s oldest championship since 2001 when he finished tied for third. It was a deed fellow Ulsterman Rory McIlroy dubbed “brilliant.”

McIlroy’s play, however, was something short of brilliant. The U.S. Open champion scrambled for par at the last hole from a deep greenside bunker for a 69 and an even-par total that left him tied for 19th, yet just four shots out the lead.

“Four shots in 36 holes in these conditions is nothing. It really isn’t,” said McIlroy, who was a member of Clarke’s junior program. “(Clarke) is doing a bit better than me at the moment but I plan on changing that.”

Graeme McDowell – who, like Clarke, grew up playing venerable Royal Portrush Golf Club – won’t have the chance to catch either of his countrymen. In what is becoming a disturbing trend, McDowell followed his opening 68 with a second-round 77 to miss the cut.

“I didn’t set out in 2011 trying to eclipse 2010, no doubt about it, but deep inside I know I can do it,” said McDowell, who won the ’10 U.S. Open and clinched the winning point for the European Ryder Cup team. “Maybe I want it too badly. I need to take a close look at how I am thinking at the minute because I’m not thinking very well.”

McDowell hasn’t had a top-10 finish on the PGA Tour since the Florida Swing and ballooned to a closing-round 74 last week when he was in contention at the Scottish Open.

Still, the significance of an Ulsterman winning a third major in the last five grand slam outings – and the first Northern Irishman to win the British Open since 1947 – didn’t escape McDowell, “It’s pretty massive odds.”