Ballymena amateur Dermot McElroy opened with a fine 71 at Royal Portrush. Photo Jenny Matthews/www.golffile.ieIreland’s lesser lights showed the stars they can play a bit in the first round of the Irish Open at Royal Portrush.

While Padraig Harrington was the best of the tour stars, just two shots behind leaders Gregory Bourdy and Jeev Milkha Singh after a 67, seven others shot level par or better on a day that brought all four season to the Causeway coast.

Pick of the bunch was Galway’s Mark O’Sullivan, who confessed that seeing his name on the Irish Open leaderboard was a shock he quickly learned to overcome.

The 31-year old Ashbourne assistant was delighted to shoot 68 and realise he’s not that far behind the tour stars after all.

Refusing to rule out a Q-School return in the future, O’Sullivan said: “I holed a 25 footer on 15 and got a huge roar. My name went on the leaderboard beside Padraig Harrington and I had to settle myself down after that.

Mark O’Sullivan showed he can compete with the best. Photo Jenny Matthews/“I think you have it built up in your head that these guys are phenomenal players in all aspects of the game. They’re very good but you’re able to compete and I shot four under today and played very well.”

Big Break Ireland winner Mark Murphy has a dream that’s big enough for two and after opening with a 69 worth a share of 33rd with major winners Jose Maria Olazábal, Rich Beem and Paul Lawrie, he’s still on course to make it come true.

The 34-year old from Waterville is targeting a top-10 finish that could get him into next week’s French Open and give him a foothold on tour.

But he’s even daring to dream of a win that could help his caddie and best friend Peter O’Keeffe live his tour dream too.

Mark Murphy has a dream that’s big enough for two. Photo Jenny Matthews/www.golffile.ieMurphy said: “I was nervous, I won’t lie. It’s tough when you are coming in for week and shooting for your dreams.

“When I won Big Break I was told I might get into tournaments in America on the  PGA Tour and the Nationwide Tour and in Europe too. But I have got nothing.

“I know I can compete with everybody and please god now I can finish top 10 here and I won’t need any more invites and we can go on from there.”

Murphy did get a start in the European Tour’s Trophée Hassan II in March, finishing 52nd. But he’s disappointed that he hasn’t managed another start on a big tour until this week.

As for bagman O’Keeffe, the strapping Douglas native gave up his dream of tour glory after struggling on the Challenge Tour and is training for his PGA qualification at Muskerry Golf Club and playing on the Irish circuit.

But Murphy said: “If I have a good week this week, he will get back playing as much as he wants to. That’s the beauty of the game.

Paul Cutler matched Rory McIlroy on the opening day of the Irish Open. Photo Jenny Matthews/“If I could win, he would be back playing full time himself. It’s fun for me to have the opportunity to do that as well.”

A top ten finish is worth at least €40,000 but the winner takes home €333,330 and a two year exemption.

Former Walker Cup star Paul Cutler, who is playing on the EuroPro Tour this year and trying hard to remain upbeat, opened with a two under 70 to match the likes of Rory McIlroy and Michael Hoey.

Ballymena amateur Dermot McElroy shot a 71 to finish the day tied for 72nd with the likes of US Open winner Graeme McDowell.

The 19-year old Irish international was out in the first match of the day off the first, mixing two birdies and two bogeys in the first seven holes before going eagle-birdie-biride from the ninth.

That left him near the top of the leaderboard on four under before he bogeyed the 13th and 16th and followed a birdie at the 17th with a double bogey six at the last.

“I played nicely, so I did,” McElroy said. “I hit a couple of bad tee shots that’s cost me a couple of doubles, which didn’t help, but other than that I played pretty solid.

“The 18th was disappointing. I pulled my tee shot into the bunker and hacked out. I left myself 230 yards into the wind. It was a tough shot, I hit it a bit left into the bunker and didn’t get up and down.

“I’m playing nicely so I am, I just need to get the driving sorted out. I don’t know what’s wrong with it. I hit it pretty good today otherwise, I’m happy enough.

“I’m just going to hit the range and see what I’m doing with my driving. Normally I hit it straight so it’s disappointing. My iron play is good as well.”

Recently crowned Amateur Championship winner Alan Dunbar also shot a 71 to finish his day alongside McDowell, Damien McGrane and Darren Clarke.

Alan Dunbar, the Amateur champion. Photo Jenny Matthews/www.golffile.ieAnd while it was a frustrating morning for Ballymena’s Chris Devlin, who arrived at the venue late on Monday after receiving a sponsor’s invitation, a level par 72 wasn’t a total disaster.

After starting on the 10th, the Florida based Ulsterman was four under par after seven holes but went to his final hole on one-over after a double bogey seven at the 17th and three front nine bogeys. Signing off with a birdie four at the ninth will have made dinner taste a little better and given him hope that he can still put in a good performance this week.

Michael Collins chips to the 16th. Photo Jenny Matthews/www.golffile.ieHe’s just a shot behind his old college buddy McDowell and him tied for 94th with Shane Lowry and Mallow Driving Range professional Michael Collins.