Pre-tournament favourite Arron Edwards-Hill put on a ball-striking clinic on the back nine at an extremely blustery County Sligo Golf Club to take a share of the lead in the opening round of the 2023 Connolly’s Audi West of Ireland Championship, alongside hometown hero Ruairi O’Connor, Holywood’s Rory Williamson and Eoin Sullivan of Carton House.
Playing in the afternoon marquee group alongside reigning North and South of Ireland champion Hugh Foley and 2021 Irish Amateur and current Irish Mid-Amateur champion Peter O’Keefe, Edwards-Hill, at +6.9, was the lowest man in the 132-man field.
With the prevailing westerly wind conspicuous by its absence, it instead blew in hard from the south-east, meaning the back nine would play almost entirely into cross and head winds, and holes three through eight would provide most of the scoring opportunities.
Edwards-Hill’s play on the front was solid, but not spectacular. A bogey-four at the fourth was offset by a birdie at the par-4 sixth, and those were the only deviations from par on the opening nine.
An excellent up-and-down for par at 10 kept him on track, and a good chip and putt on the par-5 12th got him to red figures for the first time. Now playing into the teeth of the 25kph wind, beautifully flighted irons into 13 and 14 led to regulation pars, and then he sank a thirty-footer on the par-3 16th to take the outright lead.
The index-two 17th was comfortably the hardest hole on the course given the wind direction, but that didn’t stop him reaching the dancefloor in regulation – one of the few to do so all day – and a solid two-putt-par took him safely to the last.
Uncharacteristically, from the middle of the fairway, Hill would push his approach to the right, and a slightly heavy-handed chip would cost him a closing bogey and the sole possession of the lead.
“Got off to a slow start, not taking advantage of the downwind holes but then played pretty nice on the back nine into the wind and to finish one-under was nice,” said Edwards-Hill.
“Off the tee was really good today then into the wind just hitting low fades chasing it down there and not leaving myself too far back and still playing pretty aggressive off the tee leaving myself easier shots into the greens so that was key on the back nine.”
Rosses Point’s own O’Connor had set the early target. Playing in the third group out, O’Connor blitzed the scoring holes, birdieing four on the trot starting with the third and though he’d give a few strokes back on the treacherous inward nine, he gave the hometown supporters plenty to cheer.
“I’m delighted with that,” O’Connor said after the round, “I got off to a hot start but then on that back nine it’s a case of holding on. 17 is a beast today, I almost managed to get up and down for par, but it’s a par-5 today really.
“I won’t be far away at the end of day, I’d imagine. I’d be surprised if there’s anything better than two or three under. I can’t see five or six, but I suppose, you never know.”
He was shortly joined in the clubhouse at -1 by Williamson, who played the opening nine in one-under but was the first man in the field to play the back in level par.
“I played well,” he said, in what would prove to be an understatement, “flighted the ball really well which was important because if you hit a wayward shot out there then you’ll get penalised badly. Very happy with how I played and the putter behaved itself.
“The back nine, even 12 inwards it’s crosswinds for those two holes and then every other hole is into the wind, it’s a tough finish. If you don’t flight it well you’ll put up some big scores.
“There’s a lot of golf left to play, but there’ll not be many scores lower than that today. It’s all about putting yourself in position and making the final 16.”
Two at the top soon became three when Sullivan joined the party. He’d make the turn at -2 after bridies at three, five, six and eight offset bogeys at two and four. He’d drop back to level par after bogeys at 10 and 13, but he’d sign off in style with a rare birdie at the last to become the third man in at -1, and Edwards-Hill would complete the quartet almost two hours later.
They lead a chasing trio that includes Irish Close champion Quentin Carew, Rosslare’s Gary Collins and Jordan Hood of Galgorm Castle by one stroke, with an additional quintet that includes West Lothian’s Andrew Benson one further adrift at +1.
With the wind projected to reach 30kph in round two, volatility on the leaderboard is to be expected and even those who shot high numbers in round one can put themselves in position for an assault at the all-important top-16 after 54 holes, at which point the event turns from strokeplay to matchplay.
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