The race for places in Paul McGinley’s European Ryder Cup team begins in Wales next week and Ireland’s Michael Hoey, Gareth Maybin and Shane Lowry look ready to make a hot start to the campaign.
While the skipper himself showed he can still play a bit, carding with a four under 68 in the opening round of the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles, he could not help but notice the trio if Irishmen next to him on the scoreboard.
He certainly couldn’t miss Lowry, who was his playing partner.
“I played with two young kids today who could quite possibly be on the team,” McGinley said of his day with Lowry and Danny Willett, who shot level par 72.
McGinley dismissed his four under round as nothing to get excited about.
“Let’s put it in perspective. It’s been one round, I’ve had a mediocre season, probably a poor season, to be honest so far.”
He doesn’t want to be a ceremonial captain but he admitted that he still took notes on a fast and firm course during his round and has been asking the full spectrum of players from possible assistant Jose Maria Olazabal to Lowry and Willett about what kind of course set up they would like to see in 13 months’ time.
Despite the installation of a SubAir system, the course may well play soft and long in 2014 but McGinley would still like to know if his players want it tight, with heavy rough, or as firm as possible with tricky run offs.
“I was asking them what they thought, guys like Shane and Danny, not saying they will be on the team but the younger guys, as well, asking them, do you prefer this kind of setup or do you want heavy rough,” McGinley explained.
Lowry is a player on McGiney’s long list of possibles and will certainly have impressed. He eagled the par-five second and then birdied the thid and fourth to get to four under before playing the remainder in level with a bogey at the 13th erased by a birdie four at the last.
McGinley birdied the first, bogeyed the seventh but then played the last 11 holes in four under without a blemish, including a hole out from sand for birdie to end the day tied for 14th, three shots behind co-leaders Ricardo Gonzalez and Bernd Wiesberger.
Ranked 82nd in the world, Lowry is the highest ranked Irish player in the field and the one best placed to make the world’s top 50 and a run at the Ryder Cup team.
By rights, Irish eyes should be on five-time European Tour winner Michael Hoey, who also shot a 68 in his first event back after winning the M2M Russian Open three weeks ago.
One of the most exciting players in Europe when he is on his game, the 34-year old Belfast man is more than capable of winning big again and making the elite top 50 who will have the best chance of qualifying for the Ryder Cup.
But he also knows that he will have to become more consistent and move up from 168th in the world - a lowly ranking for a player with three wins in the last 24 months.
As high as 74th in the world early last year, he showed no ill effects from his three week break as he made five birdies and a bogey.
Set to play the next six events in a row, starting with the Northern Ireland Challenge next week, he knows it will not be easy to secure a return to Gleneagles under McGinley next year.
“It’s a marathon,” he told European Tour Radio. “I was in contention for Ryder Cup 2012 because of the Dunhill Links and Morocco [wins] so hopefully I will get more consistency and have more of a chance this time.
“It’s going to be tough because all the best players in the world play in the WGCs but you never know. I am playing the Northern Ireland Challenge next week, which is a really good thing for Northern Ireland. That’s exciting and leading up to the Dunhill Links, where I am won before. So I obviously want to peak around then.”
As for his round, Hoey said: “I didn’t putt that good but took advantage of the par-fives. The course was playing really good, it’s firmer than in previous years and the greens were rolling a lot quicker. Obviously bodes well for Ryder Cup net year.
“I am obviously happy enough with how I am swinging it, just need keep working away. The schedule is non-stop now, six in a row, so it was nice to get a break.
“I have kept the momentum in a way - that was my best score round this golf course.”
Hoey knows he must become more consistent and believe he has the right team behind him now.
“I can’t rest on my laurels,” he said. “I have to be hard on myself. I went to Dubai for a few days and saw my coach. I have a couple of good coaches now - Justin Parsons and Johnny Foster - so they are keeping me on track.”
Maybin continued his fine run of form with a bogey free 68 with Damien McGrane the next best of the Irish after a two under 70.
Peter Lawrie is just inside the cut mark after a 71 marred by four successive bogeys before the turn but David Higgins continues to find birdies hard to come by.
Ranked 180th in the Race to Dubai, he had three yesterday but needs a big week somewhere to bridge the gap on the top 110 who retain their cards.
Simon Thornton, who won his maiden title in June, had a two over 74 as did Lurgan’s Gareth Shaw, who failed to take advantage of an invitation.
Shaw is 127th in the money list on the back of invitations but now needs a sub 70 round just to make the cut and keep alive his dream of winning his card without the need to go to Q-School again.
At the top of the leaderboard, Wiesberger carded a flawless seven under par 65 to share lead with Argentine Ricardo Gonzalez after the opening round of the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles, making a successful return to Perthshire two years after losing to Thomas Björn in a play-off.
The Austrian, who has made 17 cuts in a row since last year’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, continued his impressive recent form as he fired seven birdies to set the clubhouse target, which Gonzalez then matched after a round which also included seven birdies, as well as an eagle on the par five second hole.