Brian Keogh in Rosses Point
The last time Stephen Grant played under a clear azure sky, the former Shamrock Rovers and Sunderland striker tweaked his pelvis to such a degree that he has been in pain ever since.
But the throbbing in his lower back was almost forgotten yesterday as the 29-year-old Birr native scorched round sun-blessed Rosses Point in seven under par 64, carding an eagle and five birdies to shave a stroke off the course record set by Sweden's Rikard Karlberg two years ago.
With no more than a zephyr breeze to trouble the early starters in the first of two strokeplay qualifying rounds for the West of Ireland Championship, Grant took full advantage of the benign conditions to open up a two stroke lead over Limerick's Patrick Sheehy, who had six birdies and just one bogey in a fine 66.
County Louth's Simon Ward, the 20 year old international from Carrickmacross who reached the final of last year's Irish Close, showed that he will be a contender for the title on Tuesday after a four under par 67 left him alone in third place.
But all eyes were on defending champion Rory McIlroy drew, who drew a massive gallery that required the attention of four marshals complete with 'Quiet Please' signs as he opened up with a two under par 69 that did little to raise his enthusiasm.
The 17-year-old Holywood star is bidding to match Joe Carr, who was the last man to complete a hat-trick of West of Ireland titles in 1962. But he was disappointed with his putting as he mixed an eagle and three birdies with three bogeys on a day when 19 players bettered par.
"I played okay on the front but terribly on the back," McIlroy said. "The greens were really bumpy and I didn't hole anything on the back nine. I was four under after ten, had chances on 11, 12 and 13 and missed them all and then I bogeyed the 14th."
Another bogey at the 17th did little to improve his mood but showed a sparkle of brilliance at the last, lagging his third shot with the putter over a hump to a couple of inches just moments after duffing a 40 yard pitch from the left rough耮
The real fireworks came from Grant, who took up the game less than six years ago after a globe-trotting professional football career that saw him play up front for Sunderland, Shamrock Rovers, Stockport County, Burnley, Boston Bulldogs, Waterford United and Finn Harps amongst others.
Down to plus two and certain now to go to plus three, Grant was delighted with his opening effort but modestly suggested that his main ambition is to make the cut as he learns the ropes in just his second season at championship level.
"I was bogey free and that is what I was delighted about,” he said. "But it's been a nightmare with my back for three months now. I pulled my pelvis out when I played on a mini tour in Arizona earlier this year and I have to go in for an MRI scan next Thursday.
"It bothers me all across the lower part of my back and I am pretty worried about what it is but hopefully I will be okay. I was never really injured playing football."
The Offaly ace, who plays regularly with former Sunderland pal Niall Quinn at the Heritage, got his round rolling when he hit a four iron to 10 feet to set up an eagle at the par-five fifth.
Birdies at the sixth, ninth, 11th and 12th put him six under and while he missed chances of between 10 and 12 feet at the next three holes, he saved par at from six feet at the 17th and then birdied the last to set a new course record.
While he lost heavily to McIlroy in the first round of last year's Irish Close, Grant harbours no thoughts of revenge and is not getting carried with thoughts of winning the prestigious matchplay title.
He said: "This is all a learning curve for me. I was tricking around with my swing in the championships last year and it was ruining me really.
"Since the season finished I started doing really well and progressing in my game and I feel like I am getting where I want to be.
"In went through about five different coaches last year and kept turning up with my head in a mess. So I am much better now."
Radisson-SAS West of Ireland Championship, Rosses Point
Strokeplay qualifying (36 holes)
64 S Grant (Birr)
66 P Sheehy (Limerick)
67 S Ward (Co Louth)
68 A Johnston (UK), P Muray (Limerick), R Leonard (Banbridge), S Lowry (UCD/Esker Hills)
69 N Grant (Knock), P McGrath (Dromoland), A Hogan (Newlands), R McIlroy (Holywood), R McNamara (Headfort)
70 B Cashman (Belvoir Park), G Hall (Edenderry), D Coyle (Co Louth), N Kearney (Royal Dublin), R Boal (Scrabo), W McCully (Donaghadee), A McCloy (Ballymena)
71 D Downie (Sutton), T McGowan (Strandhill), B Reddan (Co Louth), C O'Connor (UCD/Athlone), D Scully (Galway), R Kilpatrick (Banbridge), G McDermott (Co Sligo), D Vaughan (Ardglass), D Kelleher (Portmarnock), L Lennox
72 G O'Connor (Malahide), D McNeill (Ballybofey & Stranorlar), G O'Flaherty (Cork), J Lyons (Birr), S Courtney (UK), D Leathern (Lisburn), P Errity (Delgany), J Hurst (UK), R McCarthy (The Island), K McCarthy (Kinsale), H Diamond (Holywood), S Doherty (Malone), A Dowling (Hermitage)
73 R McGee (Spain), D Morgan (Mullingar), R Durnin (Laytown and Bettystown), D Crowe (Dunmurry), D Lally (Tuam), M Rowe (Glasson), K O'Neill (Strandhill), D Finn (Mallow), K Condren (Greystones), A Wilson (Cairndhu), C Curley (Newlands), S Crowe (Dunmurry), D Lenihan (UCD/Castle), A Condren (Greystones)
74 D Boyle (Cruit Island), M Hammond (Moyola Park), P Cutler (Portstewart), J Toner (Woodbrook), G Carew (Edenderry), S Loftus (Ennis), E Saxel (UK), P Higgins (Mullingar), J Waldron (Muskerry), J McGinn (Laytown & Bettystown), A Dunbar (Rathmore), A McCormick (Scrabo), B Galway (Cairndhu), C Cannon (UK), S Paul (Tandragee), P Connolly (Clontarf), S Healy (Claremorris), G Boyd (Donaghadee)
75 T Walsh (Claremorris), C Doran (Banbridge), R Brannigan (Co Louth), D Sutton (UK), D McNamara (Connemara), G Hammill (Ardglass), D Coyne (Tuam), J McIntyre (City of Derry), P Walton (UCD/The Island), M Crowe (Elm Park), T Bruden (UK), JP Hughes (Douglas), R Maher (Nenagh), N Gorey (Lee Valley), C Hughes (Royal Portrush), P Graham (Galgorm Castle), J Gannon (Seapoint), J Moore (Laytown & Bettystown), M Poucher (Limerick), R Williams (Baltinglass), S Miskelly (Knock), T McClements (Holywood), D McInerney (Lahinch)
76 P Killeen (Claremorris), N Lavin (Royal Dublin), M Sinclair (Knock), E O'Sullivan (The Island), E McCormick (Galway), E Kennedy (Strabane), M Lavelle (K Club)
77 D O'Brien (Laytown & Bettystown), D Ruddy (Thurles), D Cantrell (Woodbrook), D Kneafsey (UK), G Nugent (Kilkenny), K Kennedy (Co Tipperary), J Timoney (Headfort), J Mulready (Castle), M Kemmy (Limerick), L Butler (West Waterford)
78 I Keane (Malahide), G Managh (Knock), M O'Connor (Elm Park), R Cannon (Laytown & Bettystown), E Arthurs (Forrest Little), M McGinley (Grange), A Meharg (Scrabo), M Horan (Birr), D Carroll (Grange), J Turner (Royal Portrush), M Thistleton (UK) 78
79 D Hogan (Killeen), M Buggy (Castlecomer), J Patterson (Knock), A Dooley (Glasson/NUIG)
80 G Mallon (North West), D King (Tramore), JJ Coey (Clandeboye), J McNicholas (Ballyhaunis), D Brannigan (Seapoint)
81 A Wynne (Strandhill), T Cleary (East Clare)
82 E McAnoy (Knock), P O'Kane (Curragh)
83 B Christie (Skerries), M King (Athenry), C Martin (Kilkenny)