Portmarnock's James Fox is hoping to join his brother Noel in the pantheon of champions after firing a three under par 69 to take the early clubhouse lead in the East of Ireland Championship at sun-kissed Baltray.

The 26 year old Dubliner, who plans a second trip to European Tour Qualifying School in September, defied firm and fast conditions to card six birdies and three bogeys for an two stroke lead over two-time runner up Nigel Beirth and multiple championship winner Darren Crowe.

"I've never had a good run in the East," said Fox, whose brother Noel claimed the title in 1996, 2000 and 2002. "I caddied for Noel the last time he won so I know how to go about it but there is a long way to go.

"The key is to keep it out of trouble and play the par threes well. You have to play 16 par threes over four rounds so if you can play them in level par you will be in with a chance."

Fox started with a bogeyed at the 10th but followed a birdie at the 14th with a three putt bogey at the 17th before chipping dead for a birdie at the 18th to turn in level par.

He had another three putt bogey at the par-five second, but birdies at the first, third, seventh and eighth meant he was the only player in the morning wave to break 70.

"The course is in even better condition that it was for the Irish Open," he said. "If anything it is firmer and there has been some growth in the rough. But the greens are absolutely pure so you can hole putts out there."

Baltray native Beirth, who is hoping to become the first home winner of the title since Finbarr Ronan in 1985, had a hole in one at the fifth in his 71.

Second to Garth McGimpsey in 1994 and to Noel Fox two years later, his four-iron to the  173-yard par three came in off the bank on the right and dropped into the cup for the third ace of his life at Baltray.

"I holed a driver on the fifth when I was about a 11 years of age and I had one on the 17th last year," Beirth said. "But there's a long way to go and the greens are so good that someone is bound to come through and do a score. The course is playing very tricky but I hit is straight and holed a few putts."

Dunmurry man Crowe, who won the North in 2006 and South of Ireland two years ago, also fired a 71 to keep his title hopes very much alive while defending champion Eoin Arthurs from Forrest Little is just five strokes off the pace after a 74. 

With a testing east wind blowing, just six players in the morning wave matched or broke par with the in-form Nicky Grant from Knock keen to follow his third place finish in the Irish Amateur Strokeplay with another strong showing.

The former international had a level par 72 that left him tied with Moyola Park's Luke Lennox, Portmarnock's Michael Brett and the Island's James Monaghan.

East of Ireland Amateur Open, Co Louth (Par 72)

First round - Clubhouse leaders after morning wave

69  J Fox (Portmarnock)

71  N Beirth (Co. Louth), D Crowe (Dunmurry)

72  N Grant (Knock), L Lennox (Moyola Park), M Brett (Portmarnock), J Monaghan (The Island)

73  G McGrane (The Royal Dublin), C Curley (Newlands), S Crowe (Dunmurry), D Reilly (Westmanstown), D Carroll (Grange), F Rafferty (Dungannon), C Drumm (Rosslare)

74  S Prendergast (The Royal Dublin), K Condren (Greystones), S McConnell (Ballyclare), B Cashman (Belvoir Park), E Arthurs (Forrest Little), C O'Malley (Westport)

75  A Dunbar (Rathmore), H Diamond (Belvoir Park), E McAnoy (Knock), A O'Callaghan (Douglas), D Coyne (Tuam), P Murray (Limerick), R Cannon (Laytown & Bettystown), E O'Connor (Ballybunion)

76  R Whitson (Mourne), I Brennan (Greenore), S Barry (Lee Valley), K Stack (Dungarvan), D Lernihan (Castle), B Walton (The Island), N O'Connor (Elm Park), K McDonagh (Athlone), J Mulready (Castle)

77  N Gorey (Lee Valley), J Timony (Headfort), A Smith (The Island), L Costello (Hollystown), C Brown (Royal Portrush), T Fay (Rush), C Boggan (Co. Meath), G Carew (Edenderry), S Dwyer (Newlands), L Brady (The Royal Dublin), S Kelly (Lurgan), S Webster (Castle), R Durnin (Laytown & Bettystown)

78  M Ryan (Grange), B Daly (Edmondstown), G Dunne (Seapoint), D McInerney (Lahinch), C McAleavey (Banbridge), R White (Dundalk), M Durcan (Co. Sligo), J McGinn (Laytown & Bettystown), T O'Connor (Athlone)

79  A Dowling (Hermitage), D Hogan (Killeen)

80  R Weldon (Luttrellstown Castle), E O'Sullivan (The Island), A McGrath (Greenore)

81  C Molloy (Ardee), J Turner (Royal Portrush), C Campbell (Warrenpoint), A Harty (West Waterford), J Owens (Bangor), E Maguire (Seapoint)

82  D Clarke (Knightsbrook), D Kelleher (Portmarnock)

83  D Simpson (Malone)

84  J Gourley (Holywood)

87  D Glynn (Galway)

97  A Kadic (Germany)
DQ  T Flanagan (New Forest)
RT  M Turley (Elm Park)