Niall Kearney determined to play his card to maximum effect despite rough deal

Dubliner opens with four-under 68 at Mount Juliet as he looks to make the most of curtailed schedule

Four-month-old twins and an appreciably curtailed tournament schedule represent a significant playing handicap, but Niall Kearney made light of external distractions with an excellent four-under 68 in the opening round of the Horizon Irish Open at Mount Juliet on Thursday.

Teeing off under early morning, charcoal grey skies that threatened further torrential downpours, the Dubliner, who started on the 10th, had amassed five birdies without blemish to the turn. While his homeward journey was more prosaic, blighted only by an errant drive on the par-five eighth that cost him a bogey, it was a minor irritant.

The 34-year-old continued the form he demonstrated last week at the BMW International Open when he finished in a tie for 15th place. It is the first time that he has been eligible for successive tournaments on the DP World Tour this season, his schedule curtailed through a quirk or circumstance and no fault of his own.

He explained: “It’s been very annoying to be honest because I just missed out on a card last year and I ended up with a card now that’s worse in terms of my category based on the [change in] structure that they [the DP World Tour] put in last year [as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic].

“I find myself sitting on a worse card than guys that played really badly last year. Those are just the rules they came up with [but they] certainly did not benefit me. Even though I just missed a full card, I got a partial card, but it would have been stronger in years gone by. I can’t really plan ahead, can’t schedule.”

Kearney must ‘play it as it lies’ to use a golfing analogy and he’s taken a positive mindset and game into the tournaments that he has played. The plan is to get more invites, more starts and to maximise opportunities to collect points.

He continued: “There is the English swing [of tournaments] coming up which is four weeks [long], hopefully I will get into that. But after that, it’s hard to see getting another start,” thereby handing an advantage to players in higher categories who will have the chance to play more events. The timing of the rule change has been unfortunate.

Kearney explained: “Essentially there are [potentially] only four or five tournaments left in the season [for me]. I have got to make the most of every week. I am constantly playing catch-up with a guy who can have a run of three or four tournaments. This is the first run I think of two weeks in a row which is difficult because you are sort of stop, start, stop, start.

He remains upbeat though, acknowledging that he is playing well when he gets into tournaments and looking to extend that form-line at Mount Juliet.

“If you play well, things will look after themselves. I swung it well last year, had a lot of really strong weeks and I know what my ball is going to do relatively speaking, you know what I mean, I know how far it’s going to go.

“Generally, it comes down to putting right now. If you putt half-decently, you shoot decent scores but ball striking-wise, it’s always there or thereabouts.” He accepted when you are living in that bubble of limited opportunity, a good start to a tournament is half the battle. It is brilliant to sort of kick on and hopefully bring it into [Saturday].”

He is looking to forward to having plenty of support over the weekend including his young brother, Mick, who played professional rugby with Connacht, Leinster, Zebre and Ulster before retiring this summer. “He was not here today but he will be here at some stage.

“There is a very, very strong bond there. I think he is happy finishing up. He has done so well coming out of a school [Mount Temple] that is not necessarily a rugby school, gone on to play with three of the provinces and became a very strong player. He is happy now to kick on, [and enjoy] a different chapter [in his life] which is great.”

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer