Pádraig Harrington and the three Northern musketeers, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke, are Major winners all and still in contention after an opening round at Royal Portrush that lived up to all the hype of a first European Tour sell-out.
Yet it is Gregory Bourdy of France and India’s Jeev Milkha Singh who top the leaderboard after a day of changing conditions that never quite produced the terrible weather that had been forecast.
Bourdy and Singh shot seven-under-par 65s at either end of the first round draw sheet yesterday when persistent rain hampered play in the first few hours and the threat of lightning amid a heavy downpour caused a suspension of play between 3:05 and 4:40pm. Yet the wind did not get up and punish errant shots as it might have done and the leaders have only a one-shot lead over a chasing quintet of Oscar Floren, Mark Foster, Andrew Marshall, Matthew Zions and Edouard Dubois, with another 10 players another shot off the pace on five under.
Harrington was one of those two shots back heading into round two following a six-birdie, one-bogey 67, while playing partner and Portrush native McDowell shot a one-under 71, Royal Portrush course record holder McIlroy was nine shots off his low score after a 70, while the town’s other Major champion in residence, Clarke, also carded a 71.
All four said they should have down better, although Harrington was understandably the happiest of them, despite turning his final hole at the par-five ninth from an eagle opportunity into a par when he three-putted from 20 feet.
“Very happy with the score. Certainly would have taken it going out. Keeps me well in position,” Harrington said before the “but”. “Obviously I’m disappointed. Takes the shine off the round three-putting the last hole. Professional golfers are very fickle that way.”
It was a theme the others echoed, with McIlroy feeling deflated on the 18th green having been four under with three to play before finishing bogey-par-bogey.
“Wasn’t a great way to finish to be honest,” he said. “But out early in the morning and hopefully I can get the shots back pretty quickly.”
Having three-putted both the 16th and 18th on the way in, McIlroy will need to adjust further to much slower, rain-softened greens than he has been used to in the US of late if he is to prosper this weekend but the golfer who shot a 61 on these Dunluce links as a 16-year-old is optimistic he has another low score in him.
“I’m not too disappointed. It’s still a decent score and I know that my game’s good enough to shoot a decent score tomorrow.
“It would be great to see the course get a little bit tougher. I don’t mind the way it’s playing at the minute, I’ve shot good scores in conditions like this and I’ll have to shoot a good one to get myself into contention going into the weekend.”
Earlier in the day McDowell had spoken along similar lines following his 71, saying: “I’ve got a little bit of work to do from here but it’s three good rounds and one great round that is going to win this weekend. This is one of my okay rounds out of the way.”
Like McIlroy, Clarke’s round was also interrupted by the 95-minute delay.
The British Open champion actually benefited from the stoppage, having been two over at the turn and carding a bogey-free, three-birdie back nine for his 70.
“I came in and gathered myself a little bit and went back out there, tried to make some birdies and I did,” Clarke said before giving himself a reminder of the task ahead. “I’m not here to make up the numbers. I want to get myself in there.”
Of course, the illustrious quartet of Major winners are not the only ones flying the flag for Irish golf this week and nor are they the only ones in contention.
Ashbourne assistant pro Mark O’Sullivan was delighted with five-birdie one-bogey four-under 68 on his Irish Open debut, Waterville’s Mark Murphy and a resurgent Paul McGinley are four shots off the lead following rounds of 69 while Michael Hoey and Paul Cutler joined McIlroy on two under.
And like their illustrious compatriots, all will be hoping that today is the day they can squeeze that little bit extra out of their beloved Royal Portrush.