Battling the 'beast' a big challenge for top stars
One man's beauty is another man's beast - and where the Royal County Down golf course is concerned the balance of opinion depends to a large degree on the weather conditions.
Yesterday morning's rainy squalls and strong winds ground down many of the 156 starters, particularly Rory McIlroy who shot 80.
In the afternoon, the worst of the weather had passed, allowing some easing of the burden on the Tour players, including Ireland's Padraig Harrington who rocketed to the top of the leaderboard with his four-under-par 67.
It was all relative, because this course will always present a level of difficulty that can break the heart of Tour pro and hacker alike.
Major winner Graeme McDowell and former Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley both finished with one-over-par 72s and were relieved and pleased with their solid start.
They fought the course to a standstill and emerged from their morning round battered, bruised, but in decent shape and full of admiration for this championship venue.
"In those conditions, this course is a beast, borderline evil in this type of wind. We don't get to experience these conditions very much, this is raw, this is what it's all about," McDowell said.
"This is proper Open Championship golf. You could put the grandstands up and play the (British) Open here. Between showers and gusts, it's playable, but as the fronts roll through, it's very difficult.
"Anything around par is a very good score. It's all about not blowing yourself out of the tournament."
McGinley has a course design business as well as his playing career, and in each of those departments, Royal County Down has soared in his estimation.
"It's a magnificent test of golf. If you put all the Open courses together, in Ireland or Britain, in my opinion, that's the toughest test of golf.
"It requires an incredible skill set to get around that golf course.
"You need to be driving the ball well, you've got to hit your iron shots incredibly well. Obviously chipping and putting, but you have to throw in great course management, great patience, and great mental ability.
"It's a supreme test of all the facets of being a professional golfer, or indeed, any golfer," he said.
The links dates back to an original nine holes laid out in 1889. Over the course of the 126 years since those humble origins, the layout has evolved into a supreme test of golf, and one which retains its individual character.
From a designer's perspective and with modern equipment, McGinley appreciates that nobody would craft the holes that feature blind tee-shots, but that's part of the deal at Royal County Down.
"In an ideal world there'd be a few less blind shots but it's hard to be critical of the golf course because it's an incredible test.
"The greens are so small, yet so well designed and it requires a huge skill set to hold the ball on those greens, particularly when the prevailing wind is a west wind, and the course runs north-south, so you're always playing in cross-winds," he said.
Today presents another battle as the weather conditions are likely to prove very difficult again, so McGinley was making no bold predictions, despite his favourable start compared to so many other players in the field.
"We'll see how it goes. I had a good attitude today, played some really good iron shots, kept it in play. I didn't take advantage of a few opportunities such as the 12th and the first holes (both par-five). They're really par fours in the wind we had today.
"It's a course I wish I had played it more in my amateur days. I remember I caddied for my dad here when I was an amateur, but in my day, the North of Ireland Championship wasn't played here.
"The Irish Close never came here and there was no Scratch Cups, so you didn't really have an opportunity to come up. But it's up there with Portmarnock and Portrush as our premier courses," said McGinley.
McDowell, who started on the 10th tee, has established a good foundation for round two.
"You're just going to have to try and hang around for the next few days because the weather is going to play a massive part, and you've just got to give yourself a chance. That's all you can ask for now," he said.
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