Talented Hopkins tames Royal Dublin

Skerries’ Jeff Hopkins shot a one under par 71 to lead the Irish Amateur Open after the first round at Royal DublinSuch are the twists and turns of life that unheralded Skerries teenager Jeff Hopkins could easily be playing at centre half for Liverpool or Blackburn Rovers.

Instead, a series of chronic injuries ended his dreams of a professional soccer career when he was just 14 years old.

Yesterday, on a typically windy Royal Dublin day, the 17 year old Dubliner proved that soccer’s loss was golf’s gain as he posted the only sub-par score of the day to take a one stroke lead after the first round of the AIB sponsored Irish Amateur Open strokeplay championship.

A one-under par 71 would not normally raise eyebrows but a stiff northwest wind, gusting over 20mph flummoxed the 120-strong international field to such an extent that the CSS for the day was 78 with scores soaring as high as 92. 

Just 52 player with handicaps ranging from scratch to plus four managed to break 80 as the famous Dollymount links played every inch of its 7,269 yards.

But Hopkins hit four birdies and just three bogeys in a stylish round that gave him a one stroke advantage over David Kernohan (72) of Galgorm Castle with England’s Ben Loughrey and Irish trio Luke Lennox, Connor Doran and Eddie McCormack two shots off the pace after battling 73s.

Rathmore’s Alan Dunbar, the 20 year old winner of last year St Andrews Links title, is lurking on two over par after a 74 but it was a day to forget for Irish Close champion Pat Murray as the Tipperary man racked up a 79, or West of Ireland champion Rory Leonard, who took 80. Scotland’s Kris Nicol, runner tup to the injured Paul Cutler in last week’s Lytham Trophy, shot 78.

Hopkins presence at the top of the leaderboard was a major surprise. But he is certainly not a product of the GUI coaching system. 

While he won the Leinster Under 17 Boys title last year, his decision to follow a two-year golf course at The Sports Academy in England with a stint working at the Alhaurin Golf Resort near Mijas in Spain did not mark him out as a player worth including in this year’s National Panel for Boys Under 18. It’s their loss.

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Alan Dunbar is lurking at Royal DublinIncredibly, the strapping 6 foot 2 inch Dubliner only took up the game seriously when he was 14 and he took to it like a natural, plummeting from 26-handicap to scratch in the space of just two years.

Now he’s playing off plus one (soon to be plus two after yesterday’s heroics) and his dream is now to win his tour card in November and join hero Rory McIlroy on the European circuit.

“I have always tried to give 100 percent to every sport I have played and when the football didn’t work out I threw myself into golf,” explained Hopkins, whose elder brother Ross is an All American soccer player at a Kentucky University.

“I played football at centre half all my career until I was 15. I was over at Liverpool, Blackburn and West Brom for trials and I was on the international panels. 

“I played for St Kevin’s Boys and we won four all Ireland titles and played underage gaelic football for Dublin. Unfortunately injuries kept me out of it. I had Osgood-Schlatter Disease in my knees and a really bad groin problem and it was never solved so I took up golf.”

With the blessing of his parents, Hopkins left Skerries Community College when he was 15 and completed a two-year course in golf at the academy that is the brainchild of the sports psychologist Stuart Fomes.

Hopkins explained: “Your main objective if you want to be a golfer is to turn pro and get on the circuit which is different to the approach taken by a lot of the international federations, who want you to stay amateur as long as possible and play on teams.

“Stuart is not a huge fan of that idea. He wants you to get out there and get as much experience as you can. He’s looked after Ollie Fisher since he was 12 and helps a lot of other players such as Zane Scotland and Lloyd Saltman.”

Hopkins appears to have talent coming out of his ears and he is “hugely inspired by Rory McIlroy”, another talented youngster who left school early to follow his dream.

The front nine at Royal Dublin was playing into the teeth of the wind but Hopkins battled hard to turn in one-over par with a birdie at the second cancelled out by bogeys at the fifth and eighth.

The wind was so strong that he hit a 178 yard wedge to 12 feet at the 10th and holed the putt to get back to level par for the day. And while he incurred a penalty stroke at the par-five 11th when he was blown off his feet as he was addressing his seven-iron approach and inadvertently nudged the ball an inch forward with his clubhead, he two putted for his par five, birdied the 13th and then hit a 215-yard nine iron to 10 feet at the par-five 14th and lipped out with the eagle putt. 

Now two under par with four to play, he failed to get up and down from left of the 16th for another birdie and bogeyed the unreachable, 454 yard 15th, where he came up short of the green after a drive and a two iron. 

He lipped out from 10 feet for birdie at the 17th but then had a stroke of fortune at the 18th where his approach with a wedge bounced on the pedestrian bridge that crosses the cutting and finished on the green, where he gratefully two-putted for his 71.

Like Hopkins, Kernohan has taken an unusual route to the top of the leaderboard and his 72 set the clubhouse target until the Dubliner posted his score late in the afternoon.

The 31 year old, plus three handicapper was born in Ballymena but his family emigrated to Australia when he was three and he lived for 22 years in Perth, winning representative honours for Western Australia before heading off to travel the world.

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Luke Lennox is tied for thirdHe moved to London and worked in restaurants and bars  for four years, playing hardly any golf. When he turned 30, the game called to him again and he moved back to Northern Ireland at the end of 2008 and now works as a restaurant manager.

He made a run in this year’s West of Ireland Championship, reaching the quarter-finals where he lost to the eventual runner up, Eddie McCormack.

Three over par after 10 holes yesterday, he birdied the 11th with two putts from 20 feet and  after saving par from 30 feet on the 12th, he caught fire.

He birdied the 13th with a wedge to five feet and then eagled the 14th, hitting a six iron to 20 feet.

Two drivers left him 20 yards short of the 15th and while he failed to save his par four there, he chipped and putted for his birdie at the short 16th but then fell back to level par by three putting the 17th. 

Cavan born McCormack, Kernohan’s nemesis at Rosses Point, had an excellent chance posting the best score of the day when he played his first 12 holes in one under par by mixing bogeys at the fifth and ninth with birdies at the fourth, 10th and 12th.

The Galway stalwart gave one back to the field when he failed to birdie the downwind, par-five 14th and while got that shot back by making an excellent par four at the tough 15th, he bogeyed the driveable 16th to slip back to level and bogeyed the last to finish the day alongside Englishman Loughrey–winner of last season’s North of England Youths U23– Moyola Park talent Lennox and the ever dangerous Doran.

Lurking just three shots off the pace is 20-year old Alan Dunbar, the winner of last year’s St Andrews Links and arguably Ireland’s finest prospect. 

AIB Irish Amateur Open, Royal Dublin

First round (CSS 78)

71 J Hopkins (Skerries);

72 D Kernohan (Galgorm Castle);

73 B Loughrey (Eng), L Lennox (Moyola Park), C Doran (Banbridge), E McCormack (Galway);

74 A Dunbar (Rathmore);

75 D Coyle (Co. Louth), M Shanahan (West Waterford), B Walton (The Island), C Paisley (Eng), M Southgate (Eng)

76 M Mullen (Wexford), R Prophet (Eng), J Martin (Eng), J Evans (Eng), R Kellett (Sco), C Schroeder (Ger), D McElroy (Ballymena), T Rodriques (Por), J Joia (Por), J Carvill (Warrenpoint);

77 M Veijalainen (Fin), C Mivis (Bel), A Culverwell (Sco), S Moloney (Castletroy), M Sinclair (Knock), C Curley (Newlands), C Thomson (Sco);

78 S Binning (Sco), J White (Sco), N Grant (Knock), J McGinn (Laytown & Bettystown), R O’Donovan (Lucan), R McCarthy (The Island), C Daly (Castletroy), M Kippen (Eng), K Nicol (Sco);

79 J Richelle (Bel), S Ryan (The Royal Dublin), D Law (Sco), P Murray (Limerick), R McNamara (Headfort), G Collins (Rosslare), S Barry (Lee Valley), E Arthurs (Forrest Little), T McGowan (Strandhill), G McGrane (The Royal Dublin), G Paterson (Sco), J Greene (Carlow), F McKenna (Sco), H Satama (Fin)

80 V Dall’Arche (It), C Robb (Sco), S McConnell (Ballyclare), P McLean (Sco), C Boggan (Co. Meath), L Desmond (Eng), P Shields (Sco), C Fairweather (Knock), D O’Donovan (Muskerry), D Lernihan (Castle), A Hogan (Newlands), J Monaghan (The Island), G O Flaherty (Cork), R Leonard (Banbridge), J Morris (Rosslare), M Durcan (Co. Sligo), M Buggy (Castlecomer)

81 G Bohill (Co. Louth), B Anderson (Co. Sligo), T O’Flynn (Fota Island), O Farr (Wal), K Stack (Dungarvan), R Roper (Eng), A Dowling (Hermitage), A Pitcher (The Island), T Pieters (Bel), P Dunne (Greystones), W Telford (Rathmore), T Dogil (Ger)

82 R Weldon (Killeen Castle), N Gorey (Lee Valley), S Borrowman (Sco), G Lawlor (Newbridge), D Reilly (Westmanstown), F Bergamaschi (It), C O’Sullivan (Fota Island), J Fox (Portmarnock), T Shadbolt (Eng), A Kiernan (Forrest Little), L Canter (Eng)

83 G McDermott (Co. Sligo), D Morgan (Mullingar), G D’Hulst (Bel), R Megens (Bel), R Picone (Bel)

84 C Drumm (Rosslare), J Findlay (Sco), D Ruddy (Thurles), R Carter (Eng), B Casey (Headfort), M McKnight (Lisburn), R Cannon (Laytown & Bettystown), S Quy (Bel), J Mulready (Castle), R McConnell (Belvoir Park), M Bookless (Sco), O Gilmartin (Swi), R O’Sullivan (Fota Island), K Benz (Swi)

86 R Bridges (Stackstown), S O’Connor (Skerries)

87 I Brennan (Greenore), K McDonagh (Athlone)

89 M Hammond (Moyola Park), B Dillon (Can)

90 A Lynch (Royal Tara)

92 G Leahy (Okeeheelee).