Shane Lowry embraced the pressure as a privilege and combined power and accuracy with some of his trademark short game genius to lead the Irish challenge alongside new dad Michael Hoey after the opening round of a rain-soaked Irish Open at Carton House.
Despite a forecast that predicted just a light sprinkling for the early starters, the touring professional for the stunning Maynooth venue was completely unperturbed by some heavy rainfall as he carded a five under par 67 to share second place with Hoey, Jean Baptiste Gonnet of France, American rookie Peter Uihlein and Dutchman Joost Luiten.
As 29-year old Swede Oscar Floren shrugged off a niggling foot injury to fire an immaculate, six under par 66 to head the field, the rain did little for the attendance at the roomy Montgomerie Course, where just 15,282 fans braved the elements compared to the 23,283 on the opening day at Royal Portrush last year.
The 35 percent fall in the number of paying customers looks disappointing in comparison with last year’s record crowds. They are also down on the 18,000 that turned up on the opening day at Killarney in 2011 but with a strong Irish presence near the top of the leaderboard, there is plenty of reason for optimism.
Lowry and Hoey certainly did their bit but it was another bitterly disappointing day for world No 2 Rory McIlroy, who struggled to a two over 74 alongside the Offaly man and 2006 champion Thomas Bjorn of Denmark.
The 24-year old from Holywood drove the ball poorly again and with his putter still in the deep freeze, he will need to shoot a sub-par round today just to make the halfway cut.
McIlroy confessed that he is “a little lost at the moment”, which will do little to assuage the fears of the tournament organisers over his presence in the draw tomorrow. But they can have no such worries about Lowry, who rose to the challenges presented to him despite the heavy weight of responsibility on his shoulders.
“A lot of people are saying there’s going to be a lot of added pressure on me being my home course and me living here but I sort of try to look at that and turn it around, and it’s more of an incentive to do well,” the 26-year old Clara man said.
“But it’s really a privilege to be able to play on my home golf course, stay in my own house and have all of my family and friends up home to watch me.
“What more could a professional golfer want?”
Lowry was positively buzzing after recovering from an opening bogey at the 10th with six brilliant birdies on a day when 57 players broke par.
“He played brilliant,” said Bjorn, who shot a 68. “You can see he believes he can play this golf course and he played really well and solid, and just kept plodding away and took his chances when he got them. I thought he played really nice today.”
Playing on auto-pilot on the course where he has now set up home, the popular Offaly star confessed that he has no idea what he does mentally to grind out a great score in tough weather.
After shrugging off heavy morning downpours, Lowry said: “If I knew that I’d bottle it and sell it or bottle it and keep it to myself and take it when I’m not playing well.
“I actually don’t know. I suppose I just stand up and hit it and go find it and then hit it and go find it again.”
Bidding to make history by becoming the first player to win the same event on the European Tour as both an amateur and a professional, drove into sand and dropping a shot at the tough 10th but then birdied the 13th, 14th and 15th and then followed a great chip and putt birdie at the par-five 18th with two more birdie fours at the fourth and eighth.
“I got off to a shaky enough start with a bogey on 10 which wasn’t ideal but I knew my golf was good enough coming into the week,” Lowry said. “I’m really happy with the way I followed up that bogey to start and I could have birdied my last hole to shoot 66.
“I made a nice up and down to birdie the 13th, the short par four, after hitting a pretty bad tee shot right. But birdied there and birdied 14 straightaway by hitting an eight-iron in about six feet.
“Then I got up and down and birdied the 15th for three in a row to get to two-under and started cruising from there, so it was nice.
“I was kind of chomping at the bit to get out there this morning because I was trying to play my way into the tournament nicely.
“You can shoot 75 out there in the blink of an eye by not doing too much wrong so I’m just trying to play my way in and not start playing my way out of it…. I’m playing well but there’s still three days left.”
As Lowry shone, McIlroy was disappointing again and had to birdie his last hole just to scratch a two over 74.
“I couldn’t get anything going from the start,” said the two-time major winner, who was two over par after bogeys at the 11th and 12th. “I got a couple over early and was trying make birdies to get back but it seemed like any chance I gave myself I didn’t hole a putt.
“I struggled on a few holes and made two bogeys on par-fives which wasn’t very good. I don’t really know why I’m not firing on all cylinders and no aspect of my game is strong. I’m still a little lost at the moment.”
Addressing his two-way miss off the tee, he said: “At least if you have one miss, you can sort of play for it, but it’s tough when you see both shots coming off the tee. But when you’ve got the two misses going, it’s hard to stand up and be confident whenever you stand up on a tee, and at least one side is out of play.”
As for Hoey, the 34-year old is still on a high following the induced birth of his first child - daughter Erin - just last Thursday.
A welcome distraction from missing five of his last six cuts, Hoey made six birdies and said: “Becoming a Dad gives you more perspective. Golf is not everything, but you view it more as a job and try to be more professional. And try and make some money! I have another mouth to feed.
“I needed a good round because I haven’t had a good year this year. I’m coming in after four weeks off and I hit a lot of fairways and greens and it could have been seven or eight under but five under is about right. I haven’t been driving the ball well but I just have to put that bad run behind me and move on now.”
Limerick native Cian McNamara was the feel-good Irish story at the top of the leaderboard as he shot a stunning 68 to share seventh place with the likes of Bjorn and two-time Masters champion José María Olazábal.
But there was also an impressive cameo by West Waterford’s Seamus Power, who took full advantage of his invitation to card a three under 69 to join Simon Thornton in joint 13th.
“It was great to have all those West Waterford supporters out there in the rain,” said Power, who holed a bunker shot for an eagle three at the fourth and recovered from two mid rounds bogeys with birdies at the 16th and 18th.
“They went all the way around even though it was quite miserable for a little while there.”