Former professional Paul O’Hanlon returned the amateur ranks in style when he fired an eagle and five birdies in an immaculate, seven under 65 in his first event since reinstatement to take a two shot lead after the opening round of the CityNorth Hotel sponsored East of Ireland Amateur Open at a pristine County Louth.
Beaten by Rory McIlroy in the final of the 2006 West of Ireland Championship but a winner in the 2007 Mullingar Scratch Trophy and the 2008 Irish Amateur Close, O’Hanlon turned professional in 2009 and played mini tour golf for three years before running out of cash.
Now playing out of Carton House since regaining his amateur status at the end of 2014, the former international opened with six pars, birdied the 16th from 15 feet and then came home in 31 courtesy of four birdies and a chip-in eagle three at the sixth.
“It was literally carefree, just the opposite to what I felt when I was a pro,” said the 31-year old, who is now training to be an accountant.
“I didn’t see any of the trouble that I used to see, I just saw the shot and hit it. If it worked out, great. If it didn’t, I just moved on. It’s a great way to play golf but we will see how it goes from here on. I have no expectations.”
While 27 players broke par, the Kildare native’s bogey free effort gave him a two-stroke lead over County Louth’s Gerard Dunne, who had six birdies in a five under 67.
Dundalk’s Aaron Grant is third after three under 69 with Irish Close champion Tiarnan McLarnon from Massereene in a 10-man tie for fourth after a 70.
Following his win in the 2003 Leinster Boys Championship at Malahide, the Curragh golfer was selected for Leinster and went on to win the 2004 Connacht Youths.
In 2006 he lost to McIlroy in the final of the West of Ireland Championship but bounced back to win the Mullingar Scratch Trophy by five strokes in 2007 and earn his first senior international cap.
In 2008 he won the Irish Amateur Close title at Belvoir Park, beating Castle’s Dara Lernihan at the 20th.
And while he lost to Niall Kearney in that summer's South of Ireland final, he helped Ireland to victory in the European Amateur Team Championship and the Home Internationals later that season.
He also won the 2008 Willie Gill Award before turning professional in 2009, playing for several seasons on the Europro Tour and other mini tours.
Now playing out of Carton House since regaining his amateur status, he contemplated returning for the West of Ireland Championship but waited until this week's "East", where he was fourth behind winner Eoin Arthurs in his last appearance in the event in 2008.
Starting at the 10th, the former international scrambled early before finding his confidence.
“I just didn't bring my amateur form into the professional game,” O’Hanlon said. “That was the problem. In 2008, I reached the semis in the West, I was fourth in the East, got to the final of the South, won the Close and got to the last 16 of the North.
“Then I went to Q-School and missed out in France. I think I had 22 birdies but made too many mistakes. That was the way I played at the time. It was great matchplay golf but not great stroke play golf.
“In 2009 and 2010 I had decent year on the Europro Tour with eight to nine Top 10s altogether. but I ran out of cash in 2012 and needed a career change.
“I worked in The K Club for a year and really enjoyedit. But I really wanted to do something with my finance degree and I am training with Grant Thornton, working my way through my accountancy exams and playing a little bit of amateur golf.”
Who better to ask about what it takes to make it from top class amateur golf — his peers were McIlroy and Shane Lowry — to the pro tours.
“If I were Chubby Chandler coming into Ireland looking to sign any young lads I think the criteria I would use would be, A) What’s their lowest round? And B) Have they done it at the European level?
“If you look at Shane and Rory, when they turned pro, they were both pretty good at shooting low rounds.
Rory had a 61 around Portrush and I’m pretty sure Shane had 62 or a 63 in Mullingar. For me, when I turned pro I didn’t cash in enough on my good rounds. That’s why today surprised me — seven under, bogey free.
“I think I had one round as a pro that was bogey free. The key in pro golf is when you play well is to shoot a stupid score. It’s so top heavy. That’s they key.”
O’Hanlon hasn’t played much with the new breed of Irish amateurs but he was impressed when he teed it up with Tullamore’s Stuart Grehan over the winter.
“He’s very good, great attitude, swings the club really well.…”
“My first year as a pro, I was high up in birdie count but making too many mistakes. I’d shoot 70-67 when I was playing well and not enough 64s. But I learned a lot about myself when I was a pro. Iearned how to travel and deal with the ups and downs. But I am delighted about when I am doing now. And there is no pressure on me playing golf. If I shoot 85 tomorrow it won’t matter too much. I can move on.”
Reinstated at the end of 2014, O’Hanlon thought he’d play some amateur golf this year to see how his game stacked up.
“I rode my luck for the first five holes today — hit one fairway and just a few greens in regulation until I hit a nice wedge to 15 feet at 16 and holed it.
“As the first I hit a five iron to 25 feet, holed that, got up and down from a greeenside bunker at the second for birdie (holed an eight or nine footer), then missed in the wrong spot on three and didn’t get the birdie. That annoyed me because I played the Home Internationals at Baltray in 2007 and Mark Gannon gave me a tutorial on how to play the course and where you can and can’t miss. It looks straight forward, but there are places where you are dead.”
After holing a 15 footer for birdie at the fourth to go four under, he hit a seven iron to six feet to birdie the fifth, then chipped in for eagle at the sixth.
“It hit the pin and went in, could have been a six because it was travelling,” O’Hanlon joked.
Having take McIlroy to the 17th in the final of the West in 2006 and played international golf with Lowry, O’Hanlon looks back now with fondness on those experiences.
Losing to a 16-year old McIlroy at Rosses Point in 2006 by 3 and 1 was certainly no disgrace.
“To be honest that is still the highlight of my career. At the time you don’t know how good a person is going to be. But you knew from him that there was something special there. The one thing that described it for me was the start. I was so nervous playing the first hole — it was the first time I had got into a big final — and I managed to make a horrible par up the first and I thought, okay, I am not going to lose this 10 and 8.
“The second hole was downwind and the pin was up the back. The fairways at the time were really tight, there wasn’t much growth, and I had 60 yards, he had 50 yards. I am just thinking, there are 2,000 people following me here. I don’t want to leave this in front of me. Just hit any type of shot to get it on the green and just move on.
“So I hit this shot, it was horrible but ended up 20 feet away. I turned to my caddie and said I got away with one there. And Rory is out with this 60 degree wedge, taking these massive swings and I’m thinking, what’s this guy doing.
“And he hit this shot that comes out like a bullet. One bounce at the front of the green, big hop and spins it to a stop three feet from the stick. And I thought to myself, I am playing a different kind of golfer here. He could hit shots I didn’t have in the bag. I was just plodding along and hoping he was going to have a bad day. But he didn’t. I wasn’t able to stay with him.
“He was just different league. He was only 16 and a lovely guy as well. He gave me a signed driver to auction off for a day I had when I started off a pro. He’s a really nice guy. People went to that West because they felt they had to see that guy before he turned pro.
“If he hadn’t made it, I’d never have tried myself. He was that good. I thought, if this guy can’t make it, I don’t know how good you have to be.”
If O’Hanlon wins the East, it will be a surprise. But he’s certainly got a great chance given his experience.
“Winning? Who knows,” he says down the phone line from his home. “I am sitting in front of a computer looking at strategic management and finance right now. I don’t know how competitive I will be. But I will give it a go. I’d like to think I know how to get around a golf course but who knows. This may be a flash in the pan.
“I just want to go out and try and go low again. That’s how I get fun out of the game. I’lll try to make as many birdies as I can.”
CityNorth Hotel East of Ireland Championship, Co Louth (Par 72)
65 Paul O'Hanlon (Carton House)
67 Gerard Dunne (Co. Louth)
69 Aaron Grant (Dundalk)
70 Tiarnan McLarnon (Massereene), Ben Best (Rathmore), Gavin Smyth (Clonmel), Stephen Coulter (Warrenpoint), Kyle McCarron (North West), Caolan Rafferty (Dundalk), Gary McDermott (Carton House), Stephen Watts (Cairndhu), Liam Grehan (Mullingar), Theo Coffey (Slieve Russell)
71 William Russell (Clandeboye), Jamie Sutherland (Galgorm Castle), Andrew McCormack (Castletroy), Colin Woodroofe (Blainroe), Paul Reavey (Warrenpoint), Pat Murray (Limerick), Jack Pierse (Portmarnock), Sean Ryan (The Royal Dublin), Rowan Lester (Hermitage), Gareth Lappin (Belvoir Park), Jim Carvill (Banbridge), John Hickey (Cork), Eugene Smith (Ardee), Alan Dowling (Hermitage)
72 Evan Farrell (Ardee), Roy Connolly (Carton House), Stephen Healy (The Royal Dublin), Richard Knightly (The Royal Dublin), William Hanna (Kilkeel), Sean Flanagan (Co. Sligo), Noel Anderson (South Africa), Jonathan Gourley (Shandon Park), Stuart Bleakley (Shandon Park), Fergal O'Sullivan (Tralee), Steffan O'Hara (Co. Sligo), Ronan Mullarney (Galway), Alexander Wilson (Portmarnock), Cathal Nolan (Galway), James Sugrue (Mallow), Alec Myles (Newlands), Nicky Grant (Shandon Park), Declan Reidy (Co. Sligo)
73 Dylan Brophy (Castleknock), Marc Nolan (Delgany), Gavin Fitzmaurice (Balcarrick), Kevin Stack (Dungarvan), Dwayne Mallon (Dungannon), Mark Morrissey (Mount Wolseley), David Foy (Laytown & Bettystown), Jamie Fletcher (Warrenpoint), Mark Collins (Killeen Castle), Michael Sinclair (Knock), Gareth Bohill (Co. Louth), Alan Lowry (Esker Hills), Jordan Hood (Galgorm Castle), Eoin O'Connor (Elm Park), Geoff Lenehan (Portmarnock), Eoin Arthurs (Forrest Little), Brian Doran (Baltinglass), Niall Foley (The Island), Keith Egan (Carton House), Neil McKinstry (Cairndhu), Darragh Coghlan (Portmarnock)
74 Fergal Kennedy (The Island), Noel Crawford (Mourne), Ross Steedman (Courtown), Shaun Carter (The Royal Dublin), Cathal Butler (Kinsale), Colm Crowley (Woodbrook), Ted Collins (Dun Laoghaire), Cian Geraghty (Laytown & Bettystown), Harry Duggan (Kilkenny), Ian O'Rourke (The Royal Dublin), Peter Kirby (Dun Laoghaire), Stephen Walsh (Portmarnock), Aaron Kearney (Castlerock), Jack McDonnell (Forrest Little), Rory Williamson (Holywood), Conor Ryan (Dun Laoghaire)
75 David Reddan (Nenagh), Ryan Symington (Lisburn), Michael Ryan (New Ross), Stephen Kinch (Hollystown), Stefan Greenberg (Tandragee), Tony O'Leary (Wexford), Gavin Young (Nenagh), Shane McGlynn (Portmarnock), Nils Conway (Grange), Padhraic O'Brien (Co. Louth), Paul McCarthy (Mallow), Eddie McCormack (Galway Bay), Robert Cannon (Balbriggan), Paul Coughlan (Moate), Jake Whelan (Newlands), Thomas Mulligan (Co. Louth), Jack Ryan (Castletroy), Ryan Berkeley (Dun Laoghaire), John Conroy (Bray), Adam Doran (Ardee), Gary McGrane (The Royal Dublin), Sean Moran (Co. Meath)
76 Christopher O'Connor (Corrstown), Seamus Cullen (Slieve Russell), Robert Farrell (New Ross), Peter McKeever (Castle), Daniel Brennan (Shannon), Paul Behan (St. Anne's), Owen O'Brien (Limerick), Mark Shanahan (Castlemartyr), Rob Brazill (Naas), Michael Reid (Galgorm Castle), Daniel Holland (Castle)
77 John Greene (Portmarnock), Christopher Moulds (Lisburn), Gary Collins (Rosslare), James Fox (Portmarnock), Shaun O'Connor (Luttrellstown Castle), Mark Mullen (Rosslare), Declan O'Neill (Carton House), Eanna Griffin (Waterford)
78 Conor McCaughey (Dungannon), Peter Kane (Ashbourne), Darragh Crawford (Bundoran), Matthew Grehan (Tullamore), Joe Lyons (Galway), Stephen Brady (Galway), Caolan Kennedy (Forrest Little), Gary Ward (Kinsale), John McGinn (Laytown & Bettystown)
79 Bryan McSweeney (The Royal Dublin), Keith Murphy (Charlesland), Cameron Raymond (Newlands), Martin O'Toole (Lucan), Sean Broe (Forrest Little)
80 Jack Doherty (Carton House), Michael Brett (Portmarnock), Thomas Nolan (Galway)
81 Thomas O'Connor (Athlone), Cian Dullaghan (Greenore), Robert Neville (The Links Portmarnock), Michael Buggy (Castlecomer), Thomas Hackett (The Royal Dublin), Mark MacGrath (Limerick)
82 John McCarthy (Stackstown), Gavin McKenna (Fortwilliam), Robbie Pierse (Grange), Quentin Carew (Edenderry)
83 Luke Donnelly (Kilkenny), Craig Bolger (Carlow)
84 Brian Kelly (Spain), Matt McKnight (USA)
85 Gareth Carr (Mullingar)
WD Ross Dutton (Tandragee)