Italy's Francesco Molinari
Italy's Francesco Molinari plays his shot at the 8th tee during the third round of the British Open Golf Championships at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, Saturday, July 20, 2019. Image Credit: AP

Portrush: Francesco Molinari said the tame nature of his British Open title defence at Royal Portrush this week was “bittersweet”, after carding a third-round 72 to slip 10 shots adrift of the leaders.

The Italian came into the week with high hopes of becoming the first player to defend the Claret Jug successfully since Padraig Harrington in 2008, but has not got out of second gear in Northern Ireland.

“Obviously I would have liked to have a better defence of my title, but at the same time you realise that you don’t have the trophy but your name is still going to be on it,” he said.

“So, bittersweet for now, that’s all I can think.”

Molinari had led the Masters heading into the final round in April earlier this year before being usurped by a resurgent Tiger Woods.

And he admitted the extra expectations may have held him back.

“I put too much pressure on me, especially the first day. But it’s understandable,” added the world number seven.

“It’s not easy, obviously, especially the first time and having played well in other majors this year, obviously you come in with the high expectations.

“But you’ve seen it with Rory (McIlroy) and other guys. Golf is a funny game.”

Portrush proved the killing fields for McIlroy on Friday when he missed the cut.

It was always going to be tough after his opening 79 for McIlroy, but he rode a wave of emotion that swept across the links, and almost did enough to advance to the weekend with a six-under-par 65 that matched the best round of the tournament.

“To play in front of those crowds today and to feel that momentum and really dig in, it’s going to be a tough one to get over,” he said after his two-over 144 score.

“I’ll probably rue the finish yesterday, dropping five shots on the last three holes, but I felt like I gave a good account of myself today and I can leave here with my head held high.

“Unbelievably proud of how I handled myself today coming back after what was a very challenging day yesterday.

“And just full of gratitude towards every single one of the people that followed me to the very end and was willing me on.” McIlroy arrived at the tournament, which is being held in Northern Ireland for the first time since 1951, seemingly conflicted about how to approach the championship, whether to embrace the occasion or to treat it as just another major.

The galleries provided an easy answer.

“As much as I came here at the start of the week saying I wanted to do it for me, you know, by the end of the round there today I was doing it just as much for them as I was for me,” he said.

“I wanted to be here for the weekend. Selfishly I wanted to feel that support for two more days, but today was probably one of the most fun rounds of golf I’ve ever played.

“I don’t get back home as often as I used to (and) it’s hard to feel that support from your home people, I guess, but to have that many people out there following me, supporting me, cheering my name, it meant the world to me.”

Koreans burn up early leaderboard

South Korea’s An Byeong-hun roared up the British Open leaderboard as he picked up three strokes by the halfway stage of his third round on Saturday.

With the leading pairs still to tee off on a pleasant day on the Antrim coast, An made headway as he got himself to five under, just three off the lead held jointly by Ireland’s Shane Lowry and American J.B. Holmes.

An, who carded a four-under 67 on Friday, gathered birdies at the second, fourth, fifth and eighth to jump 20 places up the leaderboard into a share of fifth before a bogey at the ninth undid some of his good work.

Fellow Korean Park Sang-hyun was also shifting on the day dubbed “moving day” at majors, reaching five under for the tournament after 12 holes on the Dunluce layout which was offering plenty of good scoring opportunities.

American Xander Schauffele, who challenged strongly at Carnoustie last year, was also putting himself in the mix as he picked up three strokes after eight holes to move to six under.