Irish Open: Rory McIlroy misses out on birdie blitz
Paul Dunne, Graeme McDowell and Gavin Moynihan head Irish challenge at Portstewart
Rory McIlroy plays his second shot to the 6th hole during day one of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Portstewart. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
From the very beginning, when links golf evolved on sandy terrain which effectively linked the land with the sea, one defence mechanism has offered protection more than any other: wind! And, yesterday, as the flags barely fluttered atop the grandstand by the 18th green on the Strand Course, a lack of any such wind was like a clarion call to players in this Dubai Duty Free Irish Open to go low. They did; most of them, anyway.
Two men, an American and a Frenchman, most reaped the benefit for aggression: Daniel Im and Benjamin Hebert signed for opening rounds 64, eight-under-par, to be locked together as tied leaders. Players generally made the most of the benign conditions, to the extent that level par was only sufficient for a share of 106th place. In effect, 105 players had shot sub-par rounds, a turkey shoot of sorts.
But, for the tournament host Rory McIlroy, and for many of the 17,763 crowd who trekked over the grassy dunes in expectation of the defending champion showcasing his wizardry only to be disappointed, there was only disappointment. With a cool putter, the world number four failed to join birdie blitz. Not this time.
Yet, others from the home contingent rose to the challenge, with Paul Dunne, Graeme McDowell and, in the very last group of all, Gavin Moynihan – who sank a 40-footer with his last action of the round – all signing for 67s, five-under-par, to be very much involved at the business end of affairs.
For good measure, others too are lurking with intent and eyeing a challenge. Shane Lowry. Pádraig Harrington. Michael Hoey. David Higgins. Gary Hurley. Dermot McElroy. All dipped under par.
Given how he played tee-to-green, failing to hit a single fairway on his back nine, Dunne’s round was a credit to his scrambling and mental fortitude. When he signed for his 67, it was a bogey-free card. Unquestionably the highlight was a run of three successive birdies from the seventh to the ninth, the one on the par five seventh which kickstarted the run being particularly impressive.
There, Dunne’s tee shot was a little wayward and finished close to a fern plant. It was questionable whether he could play a shot or not, whether he would be forced to take a penalty drop. As it turned out, he improvised quite superbly. “I had to start the back-swing halfway back already. If I started behind the ball I would have clipped the tree on my way back.” He chopped out to the fairway, and then hit a superb six-iron approach to set up the birdie that would start the run.
The 24-year-old Greystones player – with his card secure for next season already – felt that playing in the group ahead of the marquee group of McIlroy, Rahm and Matsuyama helped him to keep his focus. “On a day that my game felt like it was struggling a little bit, it was nice to get in with a good score. It’s something to build off.”
McDowell, too, stuck stubbornly to his task, especially after suffering back-to-back bogeys on the 17th and 18th holes, his eighth and ninth. It acted like a wake-up call and he knuckled down for his homeward run to finish just three shots adrift of the first round leaders and intent on moving onward and upward.
Of a frustrating season to date, which has seen him fall to 100th in the world rankings, McDowell – staying in his parents’ house and benefitting from some home comforts this week – remarked: “The game’s not far away, and perhaps it is a week like this can give me that little bit of spark and that little bit of inspiration to really kick on with the summer. I’m really pleased with this start.”
Moynihan was the third Irish player to post a 67, but refused to go any further in expectation other than claiming it to be only the first round. The Dubliner was a member of the same Walker Cup team in 2015 as Dunne but, to date, their careers have gone in very different paths. While Dunne moved seamlessly onto the European Tour, Moynihan has worked away diligently on the development circuits, but a win earlier this season on the EuroPro Tour and a runner-up finish on the Challenge Tour have given him that all important ingredient of confidence. Playing on a sponsor’s invitation, he is intent on making the most of it; if taking it one step at a time.
Three birdies in his last six holes, the last of which prompted a fist-pump into the air, allowed Lowry to join Harrington and Michael Hoey in signing for a 68, four-under. “I was very patient,” explained Lowry of his mindset, with a number of early birdie chances refusing to fall. That patience was rewarded with those late birdies moving him in the right direction. Lowry and many others on a day of low scoring.