Murphy cream of the Irish six-pack at Loch Lomond

GARY MURPHY has a good feeling for Loch Lomond having finished fourth last year, earning him a place in the following week's Open Championship.

He leads the six-strong Irish challenge after a splendid first round 68 yesterday in the Scottish Open and is more than a little aware that the leading non-exempt player here also goes on to Troon next week. However, the Kilkenny man isn't getting ahead of himself.

"It was a good, solid round even though I was a bit scratchy early on and had to hole a few tricky putts for pars at each of the first three", he said. "Loch Lomond is obviously a lot tougher but it puts me in mind of Mullingar. I won the Scratch Cup in my amateur days and always did well there. It's nice to go back to a course of which you have good memories. I finished in the early evening when the sun was shining on the mountains and lake and couldn't help but feel that this wasn't a bad way to make a living - provided you were making a living."

Murphy needn't worry. He already has banked more than €173,000 this year on top of the €386,400 he earned in 2003. An early starter today, the 32-year-old Kilkenny man can expect the best of the conditions. Having survived those early scares, he took command of his swing and mind-set to such effect that birdies followed at the long 13th (his 4th) where he pitched to a foot; the 14th, where his approach pulled up four feet from the hole and the 16th where he rattled in a putt of all of 40 feet. A bunkered second cost him a shot at the 15th but otherwise his day was without blemish. On the way home, he had eight pars and a fourth birdie at the 6th, although he did miss an eight footer for another gain on his final green.

Damien McGrane is next best of the Irish after a splendid 69. He started shakily enough but then got his game under control. He isn't pushed about missing the Open and, if he did manage to pick up the one spot available this week, would look upon it as a bonus. "I'm aware of the situation but it's not to the forefront of my mind for I had planned taking next week off anyway to spend with my wife and family. Now it's a case of building on this score."

With all the talk of the Open, the Scottish showpiece is in danger of being forgotten, so there are negatives as well as positives to staging a tournament on the week before the biggest one of all.

Jose Manuel Lara, who played in the last match in the Smurfit European Open last Sunday, picked up where he left off in Co Kildare. He shot a splendid six under par 65 to tie the first round lead with Phillip Price and the Argentinian Eduardo Romero, who must surely be the finest 50-year-old golfer in the world. He celebrates that milestone in nine days time. "I tried not to look at the leaderboards at The K-Club but in the end I knew I needed to make a putt on the last to get into the Open and I missed it so obviously that was a big disappointment," said Lara. "I gave the US Open champion a bit of a run for it, though. It was the first time I played with him and it was good to do that in one of the biggest tournaments on the European Tour. I learned a few things about how to play in those conditions which hopefully will make a difference to me in the future - the way he plays the course, he doesn't make a spectacular run of birdies or anything like that, but he always knows where to put the ball, he looks in control of the situation and concentrates really well."

Phillip Price tied for 2nd here last year with Darren Clarke, so he clearly likes the Loch Lomond course. He hated it at first, missing the cut year after year until he eventually promised himself he'd never come again. But he now feels that his "game is improving and I should be able to perform on any golf course. As for failing to defend last week, I was more interested in turning my form around because I was really playing very well."

Price, of course, will always be remembered for his 3 and 2 defeat of Mickelson in the 2001 Ryder Cup since when their paths have not crossed. The Welshman dismissed suggestions that the American had "blanked" him or ignored him, simply commenting: "I wouldn't think he'd do that on purpose. It's just that our paths haven't crossed."

Ireland's Peter Lawrie was reasonably satisfied with his even par 71 and he is another not unduly bothered about whether he makes it to Troon or not. He can get there through this tournament, while he will tackle it in the pre-qualifying on tomorrow and Sunday should he fail to make the cut. "That's why I'm not under any pressure this week", he pointed out. "Of course, it would be nice to play in the Open, but not the end of the world if I didn't make it. It's not my number one priority."

It was a disappointing day for Graeme McDowell, 72, and Paul McGinley, 73. Both now have some work to do if they are to survive into the week-end.

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