Irish Open: McGrane's hot on the trail
ON a glorious day by the lakes of Killarney, when the famous old spirit of the Irish Open was revived and walked the fairways once again, how appropriate it was to see plain-talking Damien McGrane (39), of Kells, emerge as the standard-bearer for a star-studded home team.
Ireland had to wait eight years for the sun to shine on its premier golf championship. Not since Fota Island in 2002 had there been a day quite like yesterday at Killeen as 17,812 paying customers were treated to a birdie-fest and, whisper it, playing professional golf on this island actually looked like fun.
Though McGrane acquired his full European Tour card in 2003, he's a no-nonsense, old-fashioned type of guy, almost a throwback to those salad days of the Irish Open when professionals combined flint-hard resolve and a solid, no-frills golf game into golden moments on the course.
The diminutive Meathman was 'drawn' with Ireland's two Major champions, Padraig Harrington and Pebble Beach hero Graeme McDowell and outplayed them both, racking up six birdies in a faultless round of 65, which left him in a tie for second with Australia's Richard Green, just one behind leader David Howell.
In the same way that many underestimated the Killeen course itself, with forecasts of the first 59 on the European Tour, McGrane might not have been everyone's fancy to outscore Harrington by three or McDowell by six -- but as he proved in victory at the China Open in 2008, this guy's as tough as they come.
Though famous for his acerbic sense of humour, McGrane usually keeps his post-round comments as clipped as his tight-cut hair but even he was moved by the atmosphere that greeted Europe's professionals yesterday and the rare opportunity it offered to showcase his country.
"You know, weather-wise, we are bound to get a treat every now and then and today was the day. It's fantastic that we are here in Killarney and I'm sure it was a great spectacle for Ireland and Irish golf," he said.
"As all you guys keep saying, we are in a golden era at the moment and I think today, golf in this country is on a winner after years in which the weather has been so badly against us.
"I think all of the Irish players give it a little bit extra this week with so many people looking forward to seeing us and it's great to get out there and do it for them.
"But golf is a funny game and we have to stay focused. It's easy to lose track of yourself out there with so much shouting and excitement and cameras and phones," he went on. "Yet it was good to us all today and I think we survived day one. Obviously, I hope for the best for the next three days."
Right from the off early yesterday morning, excitement coursed around the shores of Lough Leane and Rory McIlroy cannot remember so many people being present to watch him tee up his ball at 8.0 in the morning at the first hole of a tournament.
Of course, there was ample reason for them to be there as McIlroy played with his Northern Ireland mentor Darren Clarke for the first time in competition -- and those thousands who lined the fairways to see this fascinating 'duel' were well rewarded.
Clarke (41), in the middle of a swashbuckling last-ditch effort to make the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor as a player instead of vice-captain, certainly had the upper hand yesterday, posting a masterful, fault-free 66 to eclipse his young Ulster protégé by one stroke.
In keeping with his recent good form, Clarke hit all 18 greens in regulation and sank an impressive series of putts for good measure, helped no doubt by the green-reading skills of his caddie Brendan McCurtain to come to grips with the undulating, and sometimes perplexing, putting surfaces here.
As one has come to expect, McIlroy played like a young gunslinger, shooting at pins, which yesterday occasionally required him to make promises that his short game would not let him keep.
For example, the 21-year-old was four-under par after seven holes and looked every bit the pre-tournament favourite until his natural aggression got the better of him.
The first of McIlroy's three bogeys came when he drove well through the fairway and was blocked out by a tree at nine, the second when he went for the tight pin at 11 and wound up short-sided in the semi-rough to the right of the green and the third when he was tight-sided once again in a greenside bunker at 13.
Yet McIlroy would rebound with three birdies in his final five holes to keep his victory hopes very much alive with a satisfactory 67, though the sense of frustration he exuded afterwards gave clear notice of the 21-year-old's high ambition at this championship.
Up there in a tie for fourth place with Clarke on this glorious day for Irish golf was Michael Hoey (31), the softly spoken Belfastman paying tribute to the massed ranks of fans for helping to ferry him through the final few holes of his foot-perfect round.
Hoey, winner of the Estoril Open de Portugal last season, needed this psychological boost as he'd been beset by stamina problems in recent months following a viral infection earlier in the season.
Also looking forward to the next three days with renewed optimism is Paul McGinley, after a 68 that featured a phenomenal eagle three at the seventh hole, where he hit a 214-yard four-iron to within one foot of the pin.
The Dubliner chuckled afterwards as he admitted he didn't even see his 'shot of the day' land. "I lost the flight of the ball in the sun, so I asked my caddie if he saw where it went. When he didn't reply, I thought 'Oh no!' It was a pleasant surprise when I eventually saw it lying there next to the pin."
Sadly, it was a day defending champion Shane Lowry will not remember too fondly after he finished with three successive fives, two of them for bogey at 17 and 18, for a "disappointing" 74.
"I came into this week playing really well and full of confidence but I just wasn't at the races today," he said. At least Lowry gets to fight another day.
England's Robert Rock, the man he beat so dramatically in sudden death at Baltray last year, was disqualified after his superlative first-round 65 when he failed to notice two hole scores had been transposed by the man marking his card, fellow Englishman David Lynn, and he signed for a birdie instead of a par at 15.
While McDowell felt he needed to "sharpen-up" all round after an opening 70, which included a momentum-sapping three-putt double-bogey six at 11, Harrington really had to grind hard for a bogey-free 68, which should help shore-up his flagging confidence. "It was tougher out there than I thought it was going to be," the Dubliner said, adding: "I was a little tentative early on and then there was a tiny bit of wind and I seemed to get it wrong a few times, so I was happy to shoot the score I did.
"I made a few nice up and downs at the very end, which is always very pleasing to keep the round going," Harrington went on. "I think I'm playing better than I'm showing but a bit more self-confidence would help the game, no doubt about it."
Yet there's a confident new air about the '3' Irish Open after a day which Clarke quite rightly described as "brilliant". When was the last one in which we had weather like this, Fota Island in 2002?
"The Irish Open has always been perceived on Tour as one of the greatest fun events with fantastic atmosphere -- a tournament we all want to play in and enjoy. When you look out there today and think of those pictures being beamed around the world, it doesn't really get any better.
"This is as good as it gets."
'3' Irish Open,
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