NCAA champion Thomas Pieters of Belgium and England’s Garrick Porteous took advantage of benign early conditions on the Montgomerie Course to fire six under par 66s and set the pace in the European Individual Amateur Championship at Carton House outside Dublin.
On a disappointing morning for the Irish contingent and defending champion Manuel Trappel of Austria (79), 20-year old Pieters used his power to his advantage on the 7,300 yard ‘inland links’ to card eight birdies and two bogeys in a sensational effort for an early one-stroke lead over British Amateur Championship runner up Matthias Schwab of Austria.
Porteous, who has high hopes of teeing it up for Great Britain and Ireland against Continental Europe in the St Andrews Trophy match at Portmarnock later this month, bogeyed the par-three third before reeling off seven birdies.
Pieters, 20, is about to enter his junior year at the University of Illinois. And having narrowly failed to qualify for the US Open at Olympia Fields, he’s got his eye on a victory here that would earn him a place in next year’s Open Championship at Muirfield.
A prodigiously long hitter, he practiced with Belgian European Tour Nicolas Colsaerts last week and believes his power was the key to his six under par opening round.
“I had mid-irons into three par-fives for easy birdies,” Pieters said. “It’s still pretty soft, I had a couple of mud balls but the greens are perfect, the weather’s perfect.”
Colsaerts is one of the longest hitters in world golf but Pieters is not too far behind him and his power was telling on the bunker-strewn layout near Maynooth in Co Kildare.
A sports management student, Pieters plans to turn professional when he finishes college but would love the chance to tee it up in a major, having missed out on the US Open in June.
If he fails to win this week, he will have another shot a major glory next week when he tees it up in the US Amateur Championship at Cherry Hills in Colorado.
“Yes, that’s what I’ve been waiting for all year, these two events,” he said. “There’s no other chance, I just missed out on the US Open by one spot, which was not fun. I was second alternate in the end, got third in my sectional qualifier, so it would be nice if I could win one of these.”
Winner of the individual title at the NCAA Championship at Riviera earlier this year, Pieters got up and down from a bunker at the first before making an early hat-trick of birdies to get his round up and running.
After holing from six feet for birdie at the second, he hit a five iron to 25 feet at the third and holed the putt before blasting two drivers to 605-yard fourth and two-putting for birdie.
he dropped his first shot of the day when he bunkered his three wood at the fifth but birdied the sixth with a wedge to three feet and before picking up further shots at the eighth par-five and 391-yard ninth.
“At eight I chipped it against the flag and it didn’t go in, so that was a bummer,” Pieters said. Still birdied and birdied nine as well, wedge in there from 80 yards. I was hitting it good but I think the back nine’s a little tougher.”
Out in 31, he bogeyed the 10th off another poor drive but birded the par-five at 15th and 18th to match Porteous in the clubhouse lead.
“I hit a six-iron on both, which was weird because I hit three-woods in the practice rounds,” Pieters said of his back nine birdies. “But there’s no wind so they were playing shorter.”
Porteous began with a bogey at the par-three third but birdied the par-five fourth and eighth to turn in 35 before scorching home in 31.
The 22-year old from Northumberland, a senior at the University of Tennessee, picked up shots at the 11th, 13th, 14th, 16th and 18th.
Schwab, who was beaten by Ireland’s Alan Dunbar in the British Amateur Championship final last month, shot a five under 67 as Welsh Walker Cup player Rhys Pugh bogeyed the par-five 18th for a 68 that left him alongside compatriot Jason Shufflebottom, Portugal’s Gonçalo Pinto, Robin Kind of the Netherlands, German’s Maximilian Rottluff on four under.
While West Waterford’s Gary Hurley was three under at the turn, it was a poor morning for the home contingent.
Stackstown’s Richard Bridges shot a level par 72 but Kevin Phelan shot a 73 as Amateur champion Dunbar and Muskerry’s Niall Gorey slipped to four over 76s.
“I just played awful,” Dunbar said. “I had a three putt at the ninth and a four-putt at the 10th but the funy thing is that I actually putted quite well, or it could have been worse.”
Ballymena’s Dermot McElroy complained about his form on the greens as he signed for a five over 77.
Defending champion Trappel was joint last by mid afternoon after a seven over par 79 featuring seven bogeys.