Another opening round at a national championship and another major strike from Galway’s Ronan Mullarney. The 23 year old international carded a superb 65 to lead the AIG Irish Close by three strokes at Ballybunion.
Three months ago, Mullarney broke the course record at Co Sligo by shooting 62 in the first round of the Flogas Irish Amateur Open. After his latest exploits, he sits atop the leaderboard at the Close, three clear of Kinsale’s Cathal Butler.
“It’s nice to shoot a score like that but whether you’re first or 64th, I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times, it doesn’t matter,” Mullarney insisted. “This just makes it a little bit more comfortable.”
With a round that featured two eagles and four birdies, Mullarney is favourite to take the silver medal for leading qualifier but his focus remains the knockout stages, where this tournament will be decided.
“I’d love to win a championship,” Mullarney admitted. “The lads do slag me that I don’t have a championship.”
Although he has four titles to his name, Mullarney has yet to win a major domestic crown. That first round 62 at Co Sligo last May suggested his time has come but he had to settle for fifth. He bowed out at the quarter final stage of The Amateur Championship in June.
“I definitely went through a bit of a lull,” said Mullarney, explaining his recent dip in form. “In general, I am a lot more comfortable with my game than I was a few weeks back. I have more control of the ball overall. I’m not hugely happy with my putting just yet even though I holed a couple of long ones out there today.”
Mullarney, who played in the afternoon, enjoyed a fast start. He followed birdies at the second and the fourth with a 35-foot eagle on the fifth. After bogeying the seventh, he birdied eight and nine to reach the turn five under.
“I am a bit more comfortable when I get into these positions,” he explained. “It was open week in Galway this week and they pushed the tees forward. I shot one under on Monday, six under on Tuesday and four under on Thursday.”
Combined, Mullarney is 17 under for his last four rounds. The highlight of his back nine at Ballybunion was a chip-in eagle from the front of the 13th green.
A closing bogey could not detract from Cathal Butler’s sense of satisfaction as he took the early clubhouse lead with an opening round of 68.
The 22 year old from Kinsale fashioned six birdies despite the blustery morning conditions at Ballybunion. At three under, Butler is one better than Mullingar’s Liam Grehan in the race to make the top 64 who progress to the match play stage.
“I feel like I can shoot another good round tomorrow,” said Butler. “Hopefully I finish high up the qualifying and get on a run in the match play and keep on going.”
For Butler, it has been a frustrating season although there have been positive signs of late.
“I’m disappointed with the scores I’m shooting but very happy with the progress I’m making, mentally especially, I’ve come on a huge amount,” said Butler. “I used to just want to play perfect golf and if I wasn’t playing perfect golf, I was saying to myself: ‘I’m not going to be able to shoot a score because I’m not hitting it well enough.’ I don’t care how I’m hitting it now. I’m not getting bogged down about hitting bad shots.”
As Butler analysed his round, that change in mindset quickly became apparent. He recovered an early bogey at the third with a two-putt birdie at the next. From a greenside bunker on five, Butler scrambled another birdie. He made it three in a row at the short sixth hole, capitalising from a neat approach, and holed from 35 feet at the par three eighth for his fourth birdie of the round.
The Corkman averted crisis at 12 when his tee shot disappeared into a valley beneath the green. With his second ball, he holed a putt from 45 feet to salvage a bogey. The round yielded two more birdies as Butler posted his lowest score since shooting a 65 in round two of the Irish Amateur Open in May.
Overall, it was a trying day on the Old Course. Searches for lost balls, unforgiving gusts and unexpected woes stretched players to the limit. For one stricken golfer, temporary reprieve was granted (in the form of a 15-minute break under Rule 5) to tend a nosebleed. Returning champion Robbie Cannon eschewed such relief; stomach illness forced him to retire just eight holes into his title defence.
At Ballybunion, where the views are stunning and the test supreme, each round begins on a sombre note. A graveyard runs adjacent to the first fairway, framing tee shots that start down the right. Any ball sent out of bounds, into that ancient burial ground, induces dread.
Play halted at the first midway through the opening day while a funeral took place. Time, always a pressing issue for golf, seemed precious again. And with Sunday’s second round threatened by a Status Yellow rainfall warning, the first round may become more significant anon.