Higgins happy to be back with the big shots

IT cannot be easy for a 29 year-old to turn his back on competitive golf for six months, at a time when his career is in crisis.

But that’s just what David Higgins decided to do one day last autumn. In spite of a glittering amateur career - during which he captured both the Irish Close and South of Ireland Championships- and many good days on the European regular and Challenge Tours, he felt he was going absolutely nowhere.

It now looks, however, as if his “sabbatical” is paying a rich dividend. Having returned to action last April and won four times on the Irish Region of the PGA, he jumped into the lead after yesterday’s first round of the Smurfit PGA Championship at Adare Manor Hotel and Golf Resort. The Waterville man shot a four under par 68 highlighted by a back nine of 30 to take a one stroke lead over Tramore native Cathal Barry on a breezy but extremely pleasant day at the superb Co Limerick complex.

The only other players under par were Paul McGinley, the defending champion, in spite of a couple of double bogeys; Michael Hoey, John Dwyer, Donal McSweeney and Brendan McGovern, all finished with 71.

“I’m very pleased with that,” admitted Higgins, whose round shares the course record with Finian Dwyer and Brendan McGovern who also shot four under in Wednesday’s pro-am.

“I took 38 to the turn but played a lot better than that. It’s a very fair course. If you play good shots, you can make birdies. If you play bad shots, you can make bogey, double bogeys.”

There clearly is a new verve, a fresh approach to Higgins’s game. A few weeks ago, he set a new course record of 66 at Cork Golf Club on the way to winning the Motorola pro-am and he has also picked up the Dr William Flynn and Ballyliffen pro-ams, both 36 hole affairs, and another pro-am at Arklow. His confidence is high and he is totally satisfied that staying away from the competitive arena was very much the wisest course of action.

Thirty eight to the turn yesterday certainly didn’t augur well for Higgins, but his homeward run was as near to perfection as is possible. The birdie blitz began at the 2nd (his 11th) with a five iron to fifteen feet. He was in from eight feet at the next and drilled a glorious six iron to five feet for a two at the short 4th. Three pars followed although he did miss from less than a yard for another two at the 6th. Undaunted, Higgins reeled off his second hat-trick of birdies from the 7th (on in two with a drive and five wood), 8th (fourteen foot putt) and 9th (twelve footer after overshooting the par five green). Classic stuff indeed.

Higgins was out towards the end of the day and pipped early leader Cathal Barry, the sturdy professional at the Paddock Wood Driving Range near Dundalk. Barry will be remembered as a member of several Tramore Senior Cup teams before joining the paid ranks and serving his time under Hugh Jackson at Donabate.

He is an aggressive golfer who used his driver on thirteen out of fourteen opportunities yesterday and duly yielded a rich dividend.

Paul McGinley was less than happy with his 69, largely because he took a seven at the 9th, (his 18th), where he hooked a five wood from 285 yards into the woods, barely moved the ball with his attempted recovery and after chipping on took three putts. He also had a six at the par four 14th where his approach finished in a water hazard.

“That just about sums up my season,” groaned McGinley who nevertheless summoned up sufficient reserves of energy to make the 70 mile drive to tackle the Greg Norman links at Doonbeg in the afternoon.

Donal McSweeney, the professional at Limerick County, left the course in the happiest possible frame of mind after shooting an eagle at Adare’s already famous 18th to join McGinley, the reinvigorated former British Amateur champion Michael Hoey, John Dwyer of Ashbourne and IPGA captain Brendan McGovern on 71. The innate difficulty of the Robert Trent Jones lay-out is best demonstrated by the fact that only two others, Neil Graham of Massereene and Kilkenny’s Jimmy Bolger could match the par of 72.

Gary Murphy, the only other European Tour regular in the field apart from McGinley, bogeyed the first three holes and was less than impressed at finishing on 74. But it could have been worse for he needed to birdie the 18th with a massive five iron of 195 yards to finish within the limits of respectability. In contrast, Tim Rice, the former amateur international from Limerick now trying to find his way on the professional circuits, took 8 at the 18th to finish on 77 while John McHenry’s lack of competition was exposed as he signed for 78.

Nothing less than level par today will see him into the weekend action.

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