Wind blows and lightning strikes but birdies still fly in at pulsating Portrush

 

IRISH OPEN:AN IRASCIBLE, pernickety weather front did its best to spoil the occasion. But it couldn’t. Nothing could, or deserved to, as the Irish Open – on its return to an old stomping ground – delivered a rare auld atmosphere and, more importantly, on a course set up to ease any potential weather hardships, a plethora of birdies to deliver a statement of intent – this will be a great event!

And if the four Irish Major champions of recent vintage in the field completed their first day’s work with varying degrees of satisfaction, the bottom line was all finished with sub-par rounds.

None of them had inflicted any great damage to their aspirations of claiming a cherished title as Pádraig Harrington (68), Rory McIlroy (70), Graeme McDowell (71) and Darren Clarke (71) jockeyed into positions to challenge.

On a day when, for a time, thunder rattled the dark clouds overhead and threatened lightning forced a suspension in play for 95 minutes, such disruptions were mere nuisances to the greater good. The scores confirmed it, as Jeev Milkha Singh of India and Frenchman Gregory Bourdy led the birdie blitz with rounds of 65, seven-under-par, that gave them a share of the lead.

US PGA champion Keegan Bradley had an adventurous introduction to competitive links golf in company with McIlroy, the American eventually signing for an opening 73 and with some work left to make the cut.

The roars were loud, and constant. None more so when James Morrison holed-out with his tee-shot on the 14th, the much-feared “Calamity Corner”, for an ace (he gets a BMW X6 for his troubles) and, some time later, Jamie Donaldson holed-in-one on the sixth (he gets a vintage bottle of Bushmills).

For McIlroy, with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, following her exit from the women’s singles at Wimbledon, adding her voice of support to those of the vocal galleries, it was a round which promised more than it ultimately delivered. The world number two was four-under-par without a blemish on his card through 15 holes, but three-putted the 16th for bogey, and, then, repeated the infraction on the 18th. In between, he failed to birdie the par-five 17th.

“Not a great way to finish,” conceded McIlroy, “to drop a couple of shots (coming in) was pretty disappointing. It was just a sloppy finish . . . . I was happy with my game, not happy with the result. It could have been a lot better.

“As the day went on, the greens got a little slower. You could see that with some of the puts we were hitting. But I’m not too disappointed. I know my game is good enough to go out there (and shoot a low round).”

His mindset? “Just to go out there and try and make good swings and make good shots. Overall, if you cut out the last three holes, I’d be pretty happy.”

All in all, it was a strong opening gambit from the Irish contingent, headed by Harrington.

For a time, it looked as if his old sparring mate, Paul McGinley, coming here on the back of a tied-third finish in the BMW International, would even surpass him. But the Dubliner admitted that mental and some physical tiredness led to a closing three-putt bogey five on the 18th as he signed for a 69.

As for Clarke, who has taken his ambassadorial role with aplomb, this first round was as much about as the tournament as his own score. As it happened, the British Open champion – who hasn’t played in five weeks due to a groin strain – managed to turn his round around after a poor start which saw him reach the turn in two-over. Three birdies in seven holes enabled him to turn matters around.

“I just made three or four really, really stupid mistakes as if I didn’t know the course,” he confessed.

Showing his determination, though, Clarke did manage to transform his game to such an extent he became one of the 93 players – remarkably high, but indicative of the generous pin locations – who dipped under par.

And, on the bigger picture, Clarke was happy so many boxes had been ticked in the efforts to prove Royal Portrush worthy of even bigger things. “I’m not foolish enough to put words in the RA’s mouth, they obviously know what they are doing with the (British) Open championship, all we can do is show we can cope on all levels with a major tournament such as this . . . . we hope this is another step in the right direction and they will take a look and give it due consideration.”

For now, the focus is on the Irish Open. And Messrs Singh and Bourdy only have to look at the packed, chasing pack to know that all the really hard work lies in the days ahead.

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