Hopkins sets pace with battling display

SUCH are the twists and turns of life that unheralded Skerries teenager Jeff Hopkins could easily be playing at centre half for the likes of Liverpool or Blackburn Rovers. Instead, a series of chronic injuries ended his dreams of a professional soccer career when he was just 14 years old.

Yesterday, on a typically windy Royal Dublin day, the 17-year-old Dubliner proved that soccer’s loss was golf’s gain as he posted the only sub-par score of the day to take a one stroke lead in the first round of the AIB Irish Amateur Open.

A one-under par 71 would not normally raise eyebrows but a stiff northwest wind, gusting over 20mph flummoxed the 120-strong international field to such an extent that the CSS for the day was 78 with scores soaring as high as 92.

Just 52 of the 120 competitors broke 80 as the famous Dollymount links played every inch of its 7,269 yards.

But Hopkins hit four birdies and just three bogeys in a 71 that gave him a one stroke advantage over David Kernohan (72) of Galgorm Castle with England’s Ben Loughrey and Irish trio Luke Lennox, Connor Doran and Eddie McCormack two shots off the pace after battling 73s.

Rathmore’s Alan Dunbar, the 20 year old winner of last year’s St Andrews Links title, is lurking on two over par after a 74 but it was a day to forget for Irish Close champion Pat Murray as the Tipperary man racked up two expensive double bogeys on the tough front nine in a 79, or West of Ireland champion Rory Leonard, who took 80.

Hopkins is certainly not a product of the GUI system.

While he won the Leinster U17 Boys title last year, his decision to follow a two-year golf course at The Sports Academy in England with a stint working at the Alhaurin Golf Resort near Mijas in Spain means he was not considered by the selectors for membership of this year’s National Panel for Boys U18.

Incredibly, the strapping 6 foot 2 inch Dubliner only took up the game seriously when he was 14 and he took to it like a natural, plummeting from 26-handicap to scratch in the space of just two years.

Now he’s playing off plus one (possibly plus after yesterday’s heroics) and hopes to win his tour card in November and join hero Rory McIlroy on the European circuit due in part to the training he has received at The Sports Academy, which has played a major part in the careers of players such as England’s Oliver Fisher and Zane Scotland or former Irish Amateur Open winner Lloyd Saltman.

“I have always tried to give 100% to every sport I have played and when the football didn’t work out I threw myself into golf,” Hopkins explained after a highly impressive round.

“I played football at centre half all my career until I was 15. I was over at Liverpool, Blackburn and West Brom for trials and I was on the international panels. I played for St Kevin’s Boys and we won four All-Ireland titles. Unfortunately injuries kept me out of it. I had Osgood-Schlatter Disease in my knees and a really bad groin problem and it was never solved so I took up golf.”

Backed by his parents Ronnie and Patricia, Hopkins left Skerries Community College when he was 15 and completed a two-year course in golf at the academy that is the brainchild of the sports psychologist Stuart Fomes.

The front nine at Royal Dublin was playing into the teeth of the wind but Hopkins battled hard to turn in one-over par with a birdie at the second cancelled out by bogeys at the fifth and eighth.

The wind was so strong that he hit a 178 yard wedge to 12 feet at the 10th to get back to level par but then incurred a penalty stroke at the par-five 11th when he was blown off his feet as he was addressing his seven iron approach and inadvertently nudged the ball an inch forward with his clubhead. Forced to settle for a two-putt par there, he birdied the 13th and then hit a 215-yard nine iron to 10 feet at the par-five 14th and lipped out with the eagle putt.

Two under with four to play, the bogeyed the unreachable, 454 yard 15th, lipped out again at the 17th for birdie but then had a stroke of fortune at the 18th where his approach with a wedge cleared the out of bounds by a foot, bounced on the pedestrian bridge that crosses the cutting and finished on the green, where he gratefully two-putted for his 71.

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