Caolan Rafferty shot a sublime round of 65 to lead the Connolly’s Audi West of Ireland Men’s Open Championship as the cream came to the top early at Co. Sligo Golf Club.
It was a picture-perfect day for the first major of the season as the 99th edition of the event got underway and debuted a new format of 54-hole strokeplay before the top-16 advance to the matchplay rounds on Monday and Tuesday.
Rafferty who is a full-time greenkeeper in Dundalk Golf Club is six-under after mixing seven birdies and just one dropped shot in quite balmy conditions given what extremities can arrive in Rosses Point.
The 2019 champion – when it was 72 holes of strokeplay – birdied the second hole but gave one away on the par-5 3rd.
The former Walker Cup player roared to the turn in 33 after birdies on the fifth, seventh and ninth. After a string of pars Rafferty closed with three birdies in his final five holes to storm to the top of the leaderboard and give himself every chance of advancing to the matchplay stages on Monday via the top-16.
The leaderboard is already taking shape with a host of household names circling and vying for position to make the top-16 after 54 holes.
Defending champion Hugh Foley got his bid for back-to-back titles off to a solid start with a one-under 70 and he trails by five.
The Royal Dublin golfer birdied the second and fifth before dropping his only shot of the day on the 8th. He closed with ten successive pars in an extremely solid opening to his defence.
Bray’s Alan Fahy, Liam Nolan of Galway and Andrew Hickey of Ballyhaunis are all locked together on three-under while Keith Egan is a shot further back after an opening 69 from the Carton House man.
Home favourite and reigning South of Ireland champion TJ Ford is also two-under after he recovered from being one-over through eight. Birdies on nine, ten and seventeen lifted the Sligo native into the top-6.
Three birdies in his last four holes gave Fahy an opening 68 while Hickey traded five birdies and a pair of bogeys.
Last year’s runner-up Nolan is bidding to go one better this week and a hot start proved the catalyst for a fine opening effort. The NUIG student raced out of the traps with three birdies in his first five holes.
He dropped a shot on the par-4 8th but picked up the shot on the par-5 12th before closing with six pars.
Mullingar Scratch Cup winner Jake Whelan warmed up for the West with a win in Rosslare and he shot an opening 70 to lie on one-under alongside Meath’s Jack McDonnell and Balmoral’s Conor Clarke.
Just ten players shot under-par on day one with leading qualifier Jordan Boles and Carton House’s Marc Boucher the pick of the bunch on level-par after 71s.
The Charleville man was in one of the early groups and he had a rollercoaster round trading five birdies and as many bogeys to lie in 12th place.
Some big hitters have left themselves with work to do over the next 36 holes with Matt McClean, Peter O’Keeffe, Richard Knightly, Robert Moran, and Paul Coughlan all over-par after the first 18.
Malone’s McClean who would have been buoyed by a Scratch Cup win in Portrush last week is one-over after a 72 alongside Irish Amateur and Close champion and reigning Bridgestone Order of Merit winner Peter O’Keeffe.
R&A Student Tour Series Order of Merit winner David Kitt is alongside his friend and fellow Maynooth Student Allan Hill on two-over after shooting 73 while Irish international Robert Moran of Castle Golf Club is on four-over alongside last year’s joint runner-up Paul Coughlan of Castleknock.
Foley’s compatriot Richard Knightly is a shot further back on five-over after a 77 that included four successive bogeys.
The weather is set to change dramatically on Saturday if the forecast is to be believed with Rosses Point braced for a deluge of rain and some high winds.