Irish Open: Darren Clarke has his day in the sun
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 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 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.
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 eight o'clock 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, and 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, the elder man 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 which 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 Estroil 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 which featured a phenomenal eagle three at the seventh hole, where he hit a 214 yards 4-iron to within one foot of the pin.
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.
Yet there's a confident new air about the ‘3' Irish Open after a day which Clarke quite rightly described as “brilliant.
“When you look out there today and think of those pictures being beamed around the world, it doesn't really get any better,” he said.