Naas pro Conor O’Rourke was the leading Irish player after the opening day of the Northern Ireland Open supported by The R&A at Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort.
Despite the testing conditions, O’Rourke steered a steady course to sign for an opening one-under-par 69. The 29-year-old dropped a shot at the par three fifth, his only blemish on the outward nine.
O’Rourke opened his birdie account at the par five 10th and once more at the short 14th, immediately after a bogey at the 13th. He found the green in two at 18 to set up a 25-foot eagle chance and although his effort ran by the hole, it was an easy birdie to dip under par for the day.
“Just a serious test of golf. You have to knuckle down every hole, there are blind spots out there that will catch you. It was nice to grab a couple (of birdies) late on,” said O’Rourke, who said the swirling wind conditions made club selection difficult.
“Wind was swirling a lot out there. It can twist very quickly and make you look a little bit silly sometimes. Caught me a couple of times and committing to the shot is difficult. Just have to commit and pull the trigger and hope it’s the right one.
“The course is in incredible shape for how much rain there has been.”
JR Galbraith was next best of the Irish on level par. The Whitehead professional was an early starter and despite losing two balls with errant tee shots at the third and 16th, he finished strongly with birdies at 17 and 18.
“You have to keep it on the fairways around here. It’s set up perfectly,” JR said. “If you drive the ball well, you are going to get rewarded and be able to attack the pins. If you offline at all, you’ll be punished, which is the way it should be. Perfect set up this week.
“Happy with how I played overall except for the two lost balls. Plenty of positives and good start to the week.”
Brendan Lawlor gave a good account of himself to sign for a four-over 74. Lawlor’s three birdies included a four at 18 where he fired his approach from 100 yards into six feet and holed out.
Tournament Ambassador Michael Hoey had a nightmare finish to his round. Having worked his way into position to be one-under through 13 holes, he dropped seven shots in the last five holes, including a quadruple bogey nine at the 18th.
At 18 Hoey pulled his tee shot left into the trees before compounding the error with this second ball when he took an incorrect drop and relief from course signage on the par five and incurred a two-stroke penalty. He eventually holed a good putt from the back of the green for an untimely nine.
There are 16 Irish players in the field this week, including amateurs Tom McKibbin (71) and Josh Hill (76).
Julien Quesne holds a narrow one-stroke lead following the first round after posting a four under par round of 66.
The two-time European Tour winner claimed the sole lead with a birdie on the final hole at Galgorm Castle Golf Club to go into the second round one stroke clear of countryman Clement Berardo, America’s Tyler Koivisto and English duo Bradley Moore and Alfie Plant.
The Frenchman carded just a single bogey on day one in Ballymena and was pleased with his return to competitive action.
“I have been playing well for two or three weeks and the game is feeling better,” he said. “I started well with two birdies and after that I just made a couple of putts.
“It was really windy today. We only had one hole with rain, so it was okay. The wind made the course quite difficult and I’m quite happy with my score today.
“It’s good to be back. I’m playing well so I just want to have the best week I can. I’ll focus on every shot and we’ll see where we are at the end.”
England’s Plant, who won the Silver Medal at The 2017 Open Championship, believes avoiding the thick Galgorm Castle rough was key to posting a good opening score.
“It was a little bit scrappy out there,” he said. “The rough is so thick so whenever you miss the fairway you’re scrambling for pars. I made some key putts to keep the momentum going and it was nice to come in with no bogeys.
“If you feel like you’re hitting your driver well, you’ve got to go for it and be further down in the rough. If you do take a three-wood or an iron off the tee and you do miss the fairway then you’re miles back. I think, sometimes, it’s worth the gamble hitting the driver.
“I think as golfers, you always have expectations. We put in so many hours, you expect to shoot 59 every week and step up, but it doesn’t quite work like that.
“I’ve played a few events now on the European Tour and Challenge Tour, so I feel like I’ve got enough experience now. As long as my game’s in the right place, I feel like I can compete.”
A group of 11 players share sixth place on two-under par, including Scottish trio Craig Ross, Euan Walker and Daniel Young, Swedish duo Björn Hellgren and Mikael Lundberg, English pair Chris Cannon and Ben Talbot, Denmark’s Martin Ovesen, USA’s Dodge Kemmer, Iceland’s Gudmundur Kristjansson and Italian Enrico Di Nitto, who was the only player in the field to card a blemish-free round.
Full scoring HERE