Moriarty heads Major stars

AND your leading Irishman after 18 holes of the Irish Open is.... Colm Moriarty.

The Athlone-based Dubliner flew the flag at his national open championship in some style yesterday, shooting a four-under-par 67 at Killarney Golf & Fishing Club to take a share of sixth place, four shots behind first-round leader Jeev Milkha Singh of India.

It was a satisfying day for the Challenge Tour player as he upstaged the illustrious quartet of Irish Major champions whose presence was turning this week’s tournament into a marquee event on the European Tour.

Moriarty, 32, only made the field courtesy of an invitation a fortnight ago but he outscored British Open champion Darren Clarke by two shots, US Open champion Rory McIlroy by three, 2010 US Open winner Graeme McDowell by five and three-time Major winner Pádraig Harrington by six.

The Glasson pro, who had local 17-year-old caddie Fergal O’Shea on his bag, birdied the par-four first before carding two birdies and two bogeys over the next eight holes. Having parred the first five holes of the back nine, Moriarty finished with a bang, with birdies at the 15th, 16th and 18th.

“I just played nice, nothing out of the ordinary,” Moriarty said. “I didn’t think four under flattered me, that doesn’t mean I am going to play well tomorrow. I just go out there with no expectations again. Certainly, if I play the way I have for the next three days there is no reason why it won’t go well.”

Playing in the group ahead of McIlroy, Moriarty got to taste a little of the atmosphere the 22-year-old Major champion created in his first tournament on home soil since his US Open triumph at Congressional Country Club in June. There were large galleries following McIlroy, although he acknowledged that his opening one-under-par 70 could have been much better, having reached four under after 10 holes before a bogey at the 11th and double bogey on 18 sent him back down the leaderboard.

“Yeah, four under through 10 was going along quite nicely, and then I didn’t drive the golf ball great all day, that sort of let me down a bit and it just sort of caught up with me at the end. I struggled to make any birdies on the way in and to finish like that with a six isn’t too nice. But I feel as if most of my game’s in pretty good shape. I just need to go and work on a couple of things this afternoon.”

McIlroy also produced the shot of the day, his second at the 14th from right rough 125 yards from the front of the green, up and around trees and a front bunker to around 12 feet with a sand wedge. Asked if it was his best shot ever, McIlroy conceded it might have made his top five.

Behind Moriarty, Simon Thornton was the next best Irish player, the Team Ireland golfer going out in the penultimate group of the day and shooting a three-under-par 68.

Best of the big four was Clarke, the most recent addition to the Majors club and bidding to win his first Irish Open at the 20th attempt, just as his British Open success had been a fortnight ago. His two-under 69 had begun with a bogey at the par-four first before birdies at the seventh and ninth got him back on track. It was a similar story on the back nine as Clarke rebounded from a bogey at 13 with birdies at the 16th and 17th.

“I wouldn’t quite say I scrapped my way around. I hit a lot of good shots and had lots of chances but didn’t quite have the speed of the greens today. Sixty-nine was maybe one or two more than I felt I should have had but, overall, 69 is pretty good.”

Clarke shares a tie at two under with, amongst others, fellow Ulstermen Michael Hoey and the amateur Paul Cutler, a product of the Darren Clarke Foundation and school, while another pupil, Alan Dunbar, was among the Irishmen alongside McIlroy on one under.

Also shooting 70s were Peter Lawrie, Paul McGinley, Barrie Trainor and another Ulster amateur, Darren McWilliams, while Waterville’s David Higgins shot a level-par 71.

McDowell’s travails continued as he followed up a missed cut at Royal St George’s with an opening 72 in Killarney while Harrington was a shot worse off and feeling he has to pull out a big second round.

“Played well, scored badly,” Harrington said. “It’s not a great start. I need to play well, score well from here on in. A lot of work to be done.”

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