McElroy can be a new Ulster star
Galgorm Castle resounded with riveting tales of the unexpected during yesterday's first round of the Northern Ireland Open, none better than that provided by hot amateur prospect Dermot McElroy as he purred into contention on four-under with a splendid first round 67.
McElroy, 20, had dozens of his Ballymena clubmates following him as he made a spectacular return to the scene of his recent victory at the North of Ireland Strokeplay Championship.
One of three amateurs chosen to represent the GUI among the Challenge Tour professionals, he moved to within three strokes of joint leaders Bernd Ritthammer of Germany and England's James Ruth on seven under.
Remarkably McElroy, who leads the Ulster challenge and plans to go to Stage 1 of European Tour Q-School next month, felt his driver was a little off key yesterday but his iron play was excellent as he carved out six birdies on a course he knows like the back of his hand.
He compared Galgorm yesterday to playing the Irish Open at Portrush last year.
The attendance, at 3021, was bigger than usual on Thursday at a Challenge Tour event and the crowds should grow substantially over the next three days.
"It was fantastic," McElroy exclaimed. "They've set up the course brilliantly and the atmosphere was great."
Another Galgorm regular, Derryman Michael McGeady, 35, found precious breathing space in the battle to save his career as a professional golfer with a superb six-under par 65.
Revealing this week's Challenge Tour event may be one of his last throws of the dice after seven years trying to break through on the pro tours, McGeady said: "I haven't entered Tour Q-School for the first time in years – I just couldn't afford it."
He paid tribute to his wife of nearly five years, Lisa, mother of their baby daughter Molly, for "keeping the wolf from the door – she's got a good job, thank God, because I'd be doing taxiing for the last five years if she hadn't."
McGeady, winner of the Swalec Welsh Challenge in 2008, putted like a champion reborn yesterday as he landed nine birdies on a course he's known since boyhood and where he's finished top-six twice on the EuroPro Tour
Pre-tournament favourite Michael Hoey, from Belfast, fired a one-under par 70.
Joint leader Ritthammer was impressed with the set-up at Galgorm.
He said: "It was a lot of fun to play out there in front of some great crowds.
"This tournament has been brilliantly organised and to be playing in front of so many people at a Challenge Tour event is pretty cool.
"We just don't get that many people coming out to see us on the Challenge Tour and it is great to be able to play in front of a big crowd who are all very knowledgeable about the game.
"When you play anywhere in Britain or Ireland, you know the people watching appreciate good golf shots and they also know when you hit a poor shot.
"On the last I played this really tricky flop shot over a bunker and I played it well and the crowd responded.
"It is a great feeling when you do that and hopefully I can keep doing it over the next three days.
"The crowd certainly had a positive effect on me. We all want to entertain people with good shots and it helps me to focus and to play well.
"I have been playing well recently and not really getting the results the game has deserved, so hopefully today was the start of a very good week."
Fellow joint leader Ruth added: "It felt good out there today and it was great to play in front of such a big crowd. I love it when there are people out there watching me play – it definitely helps you focus and want to play better and get the crowd going a little bit.
"The golf course here is in great shape and the greens are just so pure – this is definitely one of the best Challenge Tour events I have been to," he said.
Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy is just outside the safety zone for a place in the FedEx Cup play-offs after this week's Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston.
Only the top 70 on Monday evening advance to the BMW Championship, which gets under way in Illinois on September 12 after a bye week.
The top 30 after that event will then play for the FedEx Cup and a $10million (£6.45million) bonus in the Tour Championship in Atlanta the following week.
Just 28 players in this week's 100-strong field have already secured a place in the BMW Championship, leaving 42 places up for grabs.
Defending champion McIlroy is 36th in the standings and still searching for the sort of form which saw him card two closing rounds of 67 last year to beat Louis Oosthuizen by a shot and then win the BMW Championship six days later.
"These next few events are a good opportunity to get something good out of the season," said McIlroy, who has slipped from first to fourth in the world rankings on the back of a season which has brought just one top-three finish compared to five wins in 2012.
In his last five tournaments the Ulsterman is a combined 20 over par.