Mission accomplished. At least for one day. James Sugrue achieved what he set out to do on his maiden round at The Open Championship by not shooting himself out of it after 18 holes.
Instead, the 22-year-old from Mallow, Co. Cork, who qualified for the oldest major by winning the R&A’s prestigious Amateur Championship at Portmarnock last month, can feel very pleased as he tees it up for round two at Royal Portrush today.
Playing in the first group out at 6:35am, alongside 2011 Open champion Darren Clarke, Sugrue posted a first-round, level-par 71 and, briefly, saw his name grace the top of the leaderboard as he birdied the par-five second and par-three sixth to reach two under par early doors and in the best of the day’s weather.
A bogey at the eighth and another at 11, spoilt the birdie sandwich, the latter of which saw Sugrue hit his favourite shot of the day.
“Hit a three-wood into 12. I had 245 metres and hit off to the left. My caddie Conor (Dowling) was just, ‘hit it at the TV tower, on the left edge of it’. I usually fade the ball. I knew it was going to fade and I was just straight on it.
And it was probably one of the best I’ve ever hit, to be honest, with the wind and everything. Hit it maybe 16 feet. And the eagle putt sat on the lip, I still don’t know how it didn’t drop. That was probably the best shot of the day.
“I putted fairly decent. I wasn’t doing anything too crazy. I was pretty happy with the putting. I left a couple short.”
Bogeys at 16 and 17 reduced him to level par but far from being the end of Sugrue’s world, as he explained.
“I just didn’t want to put myself out of the tournament on the first day, shooting a big number or something. Obviously, I bogeyed 16 and 17. They’re playing tough, and I’m sure there will be a few bogeys there today. All in all, I’m fairly happy with the score.”
Clarke had had more than a passing interest in his junior playing partner, his foundation having once made Sugrue a beneficiary in making the game more accessible. The mentoring continued at Portrush yesterday morning, even as Clarke, whose house overlooks the fifth hole, was dealing with the emotions that come with a local hero having the honour of striking the first ball of a major championship on home soil.
“Yeah, we talked all the way around,” Clarke said of Sugrue. “He played really nicely. He was really good. I was egging him on and keeping it going.
“Amazing to think, I said to him on the seventh tee… ‘James. I don’t know if this is good or bad.
“You come through my Darren Clarke Foundation, and on the seventh tee I’m leading and you’re second. There’s something not quite right about that’.
“We had a right good laugh and chuckle about that. James played beautifully. A really nice young man, added Clarke”
Sugrue said: “He was an absolute gent . On nine I had a four-footer and he tapped his putter off my back and was like, roll that one in. He was an absolute gent for the whole round.”
Undoubtedly, Clarke’s presence helped the Corkman keep a lid on his own emotions.
“I was definitely the most nervous I’ve ever been on the golf course this morning when I looked up at the grandstand and it was just packed.
“And Darren walked on in front of me and the roar was just unbelievable.
I’ve never heard roars like that on a golf course before. From the first to the 18th it was just incredible.
“I was very nervous for the first and the second. I birdied the second, it set me in a little bit. And just enjoyed it really from there on in.
“It stopped after five or six holes. Then through nine, I was doing okay. I was like, ‘there’s nothing to be nervous about’. It was really on the first and second I was a bit nervous. Other than that I tried to be a bit cool.
“I can’t wait for tomorrow, though. I can’t wait to set the alarm for four o’clock, as well.”
Before that, he was off to watch his hero, Tiger Woods, up close as a member of the Portrush gallery.
“I love Tiger, so I want to watch a bit of Tiger. Then I’ll hit a few balls.”