He was about to drive off in his first Irish Open and was totally unsure as to what lay in wait. Close on five hours later, the Monkstown club professional, who celebrates his 27th birthday today, was handed the early birthday present of a lifetime. The bounce in his step was more than a little apparent as McNamara made his way to the scorer’s caravan to sign for a four-under-par 68 that he admitted was beyond his wildest dreams after shooting five birdies over the Montgomerie layout at Carton House.
It all recalled the halcyon days of his amateur career when Limerick man McNamara was crowned Junior British Open champion and became the youngest player, at 18, to capture the South of Ireland Championship, which in turn led to a four-year scholarship to East Tennessee State University.
His physical build is more that of a Paul McGinley than a Shane Lowry, but the dream of establishing himself as a tour professional on his return home was not to be realised. However, the security of his job as pro at Monkstown has served as a stabilising factor and he is enjoying his golf more than ever now.
“This was a whole lot more than I was hoping for going out,” he admitted. “I said to my caddie Simon [Keelan, the assistant pro at Monkstown] on the first tee that there was a feeling I had never experienced before. I wondered, what am I doing here? What am I getting myself into? It was unbelievable. But you just had to man up and do it and when you get into the round, it is more enjoyable rather than worrying about it beforehand.”
Starting with a birdie helped. Cian described it as “a really solid drive and a nice little six-iron into three feet and when I holed that, I was up and running”.
The role of caddie Keelan was now probably more important than ever as both men kept the head down and took the round shot by shot.
“Simon was brilliant. We made a rule there would be no talk about the occasion, we would just talk about things happening back in the club at Monkstown or regular stuff like that,” he related. “Even coming up 18, I really didn’t know how many people were around until I finished. Three putts at the fifth cost me my only bogey but I didn’t let it bother me. I was kind of getting to the stage where I was not thinking about my score. I was just happy at being comfortable with the day.”
A superb five-iron to eight feet yielded another birdie at the 192-yard seventh but he refused to get ahead of himself, even after turning one under when world No 2 Rory McIlroy was just one of several big names finding things extremely trying.
“The back nine was playing hard but I hung well in there, didn’t panic, and just enjoyed it,” he said. “Two nice birdies at 10 and 13 got me to three under but I honestly didn’t see the scoreboard until reaching the 16th. I knew I shouldn’t be looking but for me it was great to see my name up there with Lowry, McGinley and the rest. Mother of God, I thought, this is crazy.
“To be honest, all I was thinking of was to make sure the name stays there, so I manned up and took on the par-five 18th. I left the chip short but got it to seven feet or so and holed it. I’ve got a taste for this now. If I can drive the ball better tomorrow, I know I’m in the game. My aim coming here was simply to do myself justice. That’s all I was looking for, just play the way you know you can, don’t get ahead of yourself and don’t worry about bad shots.”
Keelan wasn’t the only big help to McNamara this week, with Eddie Doyle, the professional at the Heritage club in Laois, also coming in for a great deal of praise. And then there was the sizeable band of supporters who also cheered him on.
“It was an early tee time and I could see them all gathering on the back nine,” Cian recounted. “They were coming from Monkstown and Limerick and weren’t able to make the front nine. And Simon was laughing at the expression on their faces when they saw the leaderboard and my name was up there.
“I showed today I can play the golf on the day but I’ve just got try and do it again tomorrow and see what happens and take it from there.”