Holywood’s Rory Williamson and Co. Sligo’s own Ruairi O’Connor shot rounds of one-under to lead the field at the West of Ireland Championship at Co. Sligo Golf Club at the midpoint on day one.
Clear skies greeted the players as the early starters made their way to the first tee, but the stiff breeze coming from the south-east was a marked contrast from the practice days, meaning the closing holes would play directly into the wind.
Local man O’Connor was out in the third group, and four birdies on the spin from three through six saw him jump out to an early lead. A bogey at the ninth saw him drop back to -3 at the halfway mark, and he’d drop another at the 13th.
The index-two 17th is a brute of a hole at the best of times, but playing directly into the wind, pars will is a great score and birdies like gold dust. A slightly overhit pitch from short of the green left a tricky, downhill ten-footer for par that would slip by, but a green in regulation and two-putts at the last saw him sign for a one-under round of 70 to post the first sub-par effort of the week.
“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.”
Asked if local knowledge gives him much of an edge on the competition, O’Connor felt that any advantage was minimal.
“Ah, we all know the place very well at this stage, everyone’s played it enough times now for it not to make too much of a difference.”
Rory Williamson is one such man with plenty of prior West of Ireland experience. “I think I first came here when I was about 14 or 15, so that’s probably 10 years now,” he said, shortly after matching O’Connor’s round of one-under.
Three birdies and two bogeys on the front nine were probably scant reward for his play on the way out, but he’d shoot a highly-impressive level par on the back nine, including back-to-back pars on 17 and 18.
“I played well, 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.”
One stroke further back is reigning Irish Close champion Quentin Carew. The garda from Castleknock came in off the back of a win in last week’s Rosslare Scratch Cup, and he began his round with seven consecutive pars before trading a birdie and a bogey on eight and nine to make the turn at level-par.
Back-to-back birdies on 11 and 12 took him to the provisional top of the leaderboard, and he’d maintain that score through 16. Unfortunately for Carew, he was another victim of 17 as he was unable to get up-and-down from left of the green, and he’d close out the day with a bogey at the last to shoot a level-par 71.
“Overall, I’m happy enough with that,” he said, “I got to the turn at level par and the wind was getting up so I said to myself that if I finished level-par it wouldn’t be too bad, but those last five holes you’re just holding on.
“I hit driver and 3-wood at 17 and I didn’t leave anything behind, and I was a little unlucky to make bogey there, but I’m more disappointed with the bogey at 18. I got a little under my approach and it just got up in the air.
Like O’Connor and Williamson, Carew isn’t expecting anybody to tear up the course.
“It’s all about that front nine,” he explained, “if you can get off to a good start there and make a few birdies – I didn’t make many this morning there – but there’s chances early on so it is doable but then you’re holding on. If it stays like that out there now though, it’s going to be tough for anybody to get too far under par.”
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