Howell seizes the initiative in a thrilling first round

KILLARNEY, the 3 Irish Open and Englishman David Howell were the winners after yesterday’s outstanding opening round of the national golf championship.

From early morning, warm sunshine bathed the course and the awesome lakes made for a worldwide television scenario that just must have worked wonders for our tourism industry.

A total of 17,812 spectators turned up to watch and enjoy and will surely return for more of the same, not least because the much hoped for home challenge remains very much alive.

As anticipated, the leader boards were a myriad of red figures depicting a whole host of birdies but those rash enough to suggest a sub-60 was on the cards have been proved to be wide of the mark, so far at least.

The round one lead is held by 35-year-old Howell on seven under par 64, a turn-up for the books given that he has been completely out of the limelight for the last four years. He is one ahead of Australian left hander Richard Green, and Damien McGrane, the leading Irishman.

Looming hot on their heels are several others: Darren Clarke and Michael Hoey, both 66; Rory McIlroy, 67; Paul McGinley and Pádraig Harrington, 68; Barrie Trainor from the Irish PGA Region of merit, 69, and Graeme McDowell, 70. A double bogey at the 11th stopped McDowell in his tracks and left him with a fair bit of ground to make up but it looks as if a successful defence of his title is already beyond the range of Shane Lowry, who never gained any momentum and found water at the 18th to finish with a three over 74.

McGrane is the kind of guy who likes to fly under the radar so when I suggested it was a feather in his cap to have outscored his playing partners, major champions Harrington and Graeme McDowell, he feigned surprise and answered: “Do you think so? I have three more days to do it.”

Nevertheless, he was delighted to get to six under par as he stressed that “all of the Irish players give it a little extra this week’’.

He added: “With so many people supporting us, it’s great to get out there and do it for them. Ireland and Irish golf is a winner today. I loved my draw, I would sooner play with friends of mine like Pádraig. Some people are tough to play with but not Pádraig, he’s been a friend and supporter for a long time. I was in the pro shop in Wexford when Graeme was doing his thing in America so we certainly came different routes. I wouldn’t know him as well as Pádraig but we had good banter out there and enjoyed the spectacle.”

Harrington, who so badly needs a good tournament to boost his Ryder Cup prospects, got off to a very slow start, playing the first 13 in 12 pars and a sole birdie at the 7th. Crucially, though, he picked up shots at the 14th and 16th to play himself into a handy position.

“I’m happy enough, I made a couple of birdies coming home which was important,” he said. “I was a little tentative early on but pleased enough at how I played towards the end. I made a few nice up and downs that are always important to keep a round going. This is the type of golf course on which you can make birdies and feel you’ve gone back a lot.

“There is no wind and the greens are soft so it’s playing as easy as it’s going to play. But if they firmed up the greens and we had a bit of wind, maybe we would struggle to shoot par out there. It’s a fair test and a good test. It was a great atmosphere. It was nice to be out in front of a home crowd and there was a lot of them there.

“I felt I could have made a few more birdies but I definitely got up and down a few times for par which was very important. I’ve never been happier with my game, actually and that leaves me time to focus on my short game. That was weak at the Open but it’s been strong today.”

Inevitably, Harrington was pressed about his Ryder Cup prospects but reiterated: “It’s tough work but I’ve got this tournament and the next two and hopefully I’ll do something substantial and jump right back up there.”

McDowell attributed his failure to make the anticipated impression to “the tricky greens so birdies were hard to come by”.

He added: “The golf course was there for the taking but I have not played myself out of the tournament. Our sponsors, 3, got exactly what they deserved, a nice sunny day in Killarney. It was a pleasure out there today.”


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