Some golfers are superstitious, to the point of using a special coin as a ball marker or down to wearing specific coloured socks. The shoe is on the other foot with Graeme McDowell, who hopes that appearing in his 13th Irish Open here at a sun-kissed Fota Island will prove to be a lucky omen in his quest to claim a first win in the championship.
In near-perfect conditions, a rainbow coalition of nationalities manoeuvred into position towards the business end of the leaderboard. A Finn. A German. Two Swedes. An Italian. A Dutchman. A Dane. And then those hanging fervently to their coat-tai, among them the leading Irishmen, McDowell and Michael Hoey, who each shot rounds of 68, three-under-par.
Mikko Ilonen, from Finland, led the way with a 64, seven-under, to take a two-stroke lead over Sweden's Robert Karlsson and Magnus A Carlsson and Germany's Marcel Siem, who had the notable distinction of coming home in a mere 29 strokes. Indeed, the birdie fest – such as it was – created a wonderful atmosphere for the near 17,000 official attendance.
Of course, not everyone found it as easy as they would have wished. Rory McIlroy, for one, had a difficult time adjusting from the grind at the US Open. The birdies were hard found for the Northern Irishman, who could only muster a 74 to immediately put himself on the back foot in his attempt to make the cut, never mind get into contention.
McDowell also made the transatlantic journey from North Carolina, in his case adding in a detour to Hoylake for a reconnaissance visit ahead of next month's British Open. His body clock hasn't quite readjusted fully just yet, as evidenced by having to familiarise himself with driving on the left-hand side of the road again and, perhaps more pertinently in his bid to add the Irish Open to his impressive CV, a couple of loose shots in the first round.
On the 17th hole, for instance, McDowell’s tee shot to the 222 yards par 3 came up almost 60 yards short of the flag.
“My body didn’t feel like my own, I was not feeling 100 per cent . . . I just went asleep on 17. I was trying to beat a 5-iron and my tired legs just literally gave way. It was just a good, old-fashioned laid-the-sod-over, just a really bad shot,” he admitted.
On another day, that poor shot might have had McDowell in bad mood. Not yesterday, though. It was the one poor shot he hit coming in – leading to a bogey – but, against that, he managed birdies at the 15th, 16th and 18th holes. On that finishing par 5, McDowell obviously recovered sufficient strength in his legs as he produced a finishing par that was “pleasing”.
“It was a key day. I felt if I could get through in decent shape, that I should get stronger over the weekend. Maybe I tried to do too much on Tuesday, going to Hoylake and flying in here. I had a few other things going on. I didn’t get enough sleep under my belt and I like my sleep . . . . I feel like I’ll get stronger and stronger as the week goes on,” claimed McDowell.
‘Room for improvement’
McDowell’s driving of the golf ball – not his road-driving skills – were, as he put it, “an A-minus . . . I got it in the fairway, I drove it okay. But because I have to give up some distance to the long guys in the field, accuracy is very important to me. I haven’t been as accurate as I would like to be. There’s room for improvement.”
He added: “Any energy I am lacking, I can try and pull that from the crowd . . . . there’s a good vibe, a good atmosphere, good energy, good buzz.”
That vibrancy was obvious away from just the marquee groups, with players – in the main – coping with conditions which grew increasingly tricky as the day went on. The firmer fairways, particularly on doglegs, resulted in drives bouncing on into rough that was thick and heavy. More often than not, players had to take their medicine and simply advance the ball back into play.
Illonen was one of those who found a way better than anyone, as the Finn negotiated the course to claim a two-shot lead on the field. His round didn’t start too well on the 10th – his first – where he bombed a drive down the fairway and, with only a sand wedge in his hand, walked away with only a par.
“Luckily, I didn’t get too angry. I just kept going, kept hitting greens and kept giving myself chances . . . luckily in the end, I made a few putts. I stayed patient and then the birdies kept coming, especially in the end.”
In fact, Illonen birdied five of his closing seven holes to set the pace and aim for an even bigger win on Irish soil: back in 1999, he had the distinction, as an amateur, of winning the West of Ireland.
Overall, it was a decent day for the Irish contingent, headed by McDowell's and Hoey's rounds of 68 but backed up by 69s from Padraig Harrington, Peter Lawrie and Gavin Moynihan, while Shane Lowry opened with a 71.