Hermitage’s Rowan Lester defied vicious rain squalls and winds gusting up to 40mph to card an incredible level par 72 and take a two-stroke lead after the first qualifying round for the South of Ireland Amateur Open at Lahinch.
Scores soared into the high 90s in the Pierse Motors Volkswagen sponsored classic with a steady 25mph southwesterly — Lahinch’s toughest wind — making life hell for the elite, 150-strong field.
Darren Clarke’s 18-year old son Tyrone, who is making his debut in the championship, was thrilled to open with an 80 in his first competitive spin around the famous old links, confessing that his father had texted him before the off with some paternal words of wisdom on a day when the average score was 81.88.
“Dad just said that everybody is going to find it tough,” Clarke Jnr, a taller, blonder version of his father, said of his message from the 1990 champion. “He said just keep going and there will be a birdie here and there and don't get too upset.”
Clarke was nine over after 10 holes but parred the 11th and 12th got his lone birdie at the 13th before parring his way home, leaving him well placed to make the top 64 qualifiers tonight.
His round paled into insignificance compared to the 72 by Lester, the recently crowned North of Ireland champion and last year’s beaten finalist here.
Now playing at Texas Wesleyan in Austin, Lester is bidding to become the first man since Clarke in 1990 to win the “South” and the “North” in the same season.
And certainly looks like a man with confidence after he came back from three-over after six and four over par after eight holes to lead the field by two strokes from Tramore’s Walker Cup hopeful Robin Dawson and 19-year old Sean Desmond from Monkstown.
“It was a good one,” the 21-year old said with a grin. “Just the seven birdies. And I missed a few as well.”
Lester looked set for a long day when he double bogeyed the first into a stiff left to right wind, birdied the second and bogeyed the third before following another birdie at The Klondyke with a double bogey six at the sixth.
When he bogeyed the eighth to go four over for the day, a level par round looked out of the question.
But he got up and down from a difficult position at the ninth, holing a 10 footer for birdie and an outward nine of 39 before coming home in three-under 33.
“I just took my chances when I had them,” said Lester, who dropped a shot when a vicious squall hit the group on the 11th but then birdied the 12th and 13th, holed a 20 footer for another birdie at the 17th and closed out his round by chipping close from left of the 18th.
“We were laughing on the ninth that I was only three over,” he said. “But I didn't really hit many off line on the back nine, scrambled really well and made some good pars.
“I feel a bit more confident and feel good about my game after the North. My chipping and putting has been really sharp. That was the key.
“My long game was good but it was just about keeping momentum, which is something I wasn't doing this summer.”
Dawson recovered from a bogey-double bogey start for his 74 as defending champion Conor Purcell from Portmarnock shot a fine 75 early in the day with fellow international Conor O’Rourke, Irish Amateur Open winner Peter O’Keeffe and former South winner Robbie Cannon chiselling out 76s.
Internationals Colm Campbell, Stuart Grehan and Alex Gleeson signed for 78s while there were 80s for the likes of Kinsale’s John Murphy, Knock’s Colin Fairweather and two-time Irish Boys champion Mark Power, an 81 for John Ross Galbraith, an 82 for Tiarnan McLarnon and an 83 for Dundalk’s in-form Caolan Rafferty.
"I shot eight over and it feels like level par," said Power after going out of bounds with his third and taking eight at the par-five 18th. "I was two over with four to go and thinking that anything around 75 or 76 would be good.
“Coming in, if you hit a fairway it was almost a miracle. It must have been a five club wind.
“At the last I hit my drive into the left bunker and had to take my medicine and chip out. I hit a six-iron right of the green and it must have moved 50 yards in the air and went over the road.”
Desmond was happy to shoot a two over 74, which was matched by the impressive Dawson later in the day.
"It was windy but I played well and I putted well," said Desmond, who has missed the South until this year as it clashes with the Boys Interprovincials. "I didn't put myself in bad spots apart from 15 and just holed putts."
The winner of the Douglas Snr Scratch earlier this year, the pick of Desmond's birdies came at the sixth, where he hit a three-wood from 200 yards to 10 feet.
"It was straight into the wind," he said. "I got to one under after 12 and I wanted to break par but I made a sloppy bogey on 13, just missed in the wrong spot on 14 and had to hack out and then bogeyed 15."
Defending champion Purcell matched Shaun Carter and Marc McKinstry with a 75 and he could only be pleased with his score given the conditions.
"It was a bit crazy out there," Purcell said. "On 11 the ball was moving a bit. Some holes were very testing but it was playable and I stayed bone dry. The crosswinds on three, six and seven made those holes play very hard. The 11th on the back nine was very tough. I had to hit a four iron from 160 yards straight into the wind there. It was a grind. I had to stay patient the whole day."
Justin Kehoe, the 2001 champion managed a 79 early in the day and said: "I was hitting driver, three wood and not getting there. Then driver, three wood and not getting there on the next hole. It was tough."
Former Walker Cup and Eisenhower Trophy winner Paddy Gribben has played little competitive golf in recent years and after an 89, he was happy to catch up with old friends in the clubhouse afterwards.
"It was that bad I was tempted to climb into one of those bunkers and take shelter," Gribben joked. "But at least we broke 90!"
116th South of Ireland Amateur Open, sponsored by Pierse Motors Volkswagen
Strokeplay qualifying, Lahinch GC, July 26-27
72 R Lester (Hermitage)
74 R Dawson (Tramore); S Desmond (Monkstown)
75 M McKinstry (Cairndhu); C Purcell (Portmarnock); S Carter (The Royal Dublin)
76 C O’Rourke (Naas); J Lyons (Galway); G O'Flaherty (Cork); P O' Keeffe (Douglas); R Cannon (Balbriggan); J Ryan (Castletroy)
77 J Yates (Naas); G Lenehan (Portmarnock); J McDonnell (Forrest Little); E Smith (Laytown & Bettystown); T Mulligan (Laytown & Bettystown); P Coughlan (Castleknock)
78 C Campbell (Warrenpoint); J Hickey (Cork); B Murray (Waterford Castle); S Grehan (Tullamore); K Murphy (Charlesland); W Russell (Clandeboye); G Fitzmaurice (Balcarrick); A Gleeson (Castle); B Doran (Baltinglass); P Kerr (Royal Portrush); D Brennan (Shannon); M Kennelly (Galway Bay); T Hackett (The Royal Dublin); M Ryan (New Ross); R McKinstry (Cairndhu); P Murray (Clontarf); T Cleary (Woodstock)
79 E Long (Monkstown); A Mulhall (Ardglass); J Kehoe (Limerick); M Morrissey (Co. Sligo); J Sugrue (Mallow); T Ford (Co. Sligo); G Nugent (Kilkenny); L Donnelly (Kilkenny)
80 R Pierse (Grange); T Clarke (Royal Portrush); D Coghlan (Portmarnock); D McMahon (Castletroy); J Walsh (Castle); M Norton (Belvoir Park); J Murphy (Kinsale); J Whelan (Newlands); C Fairweather (Knock); M O’Kelly (Limerick); J McVicker (Knock); G Ward (Kinsale); R Mullarney (Galway); E Griffin (Waterford); M Power (Kilkenny)
81 K McCarron (North West); J Knipe (Royal Portrush); M Nolan (Delgany); E Power (Kilkenny); J Sutherland (Galgorm Castle); J Pierse (Portmarnock); R Williamson (Holywood); R Brazill (Naas); O O’Brien (Limerick); H O'Hare (Fortwilliam); P O'Hara (Kilkenny); T O'Connor (Athlone); M MacGrath (Lahinch); D Lowry (Corrstown); J Galbraith (Whitehead); G Lappin (Belvoir Park); M Shiel (Galway Bay); E Stack (Ballybunion)
82 S Loftus (Yas Links Golf Club, UAE); B Anderson (The Royal Dublin); K Bornemann (Douglas); D Brophy (Castleknock); D Reddan Jnr (Nenagh); L Grehan (Mullingar); D Murphy (Portarlington); R O’Connor (Co. Sligo); T Collins (Dun Laoghaire); J Fletcher (Warrenpoint); G Smyth (Clonmel); H Foley (The Royal Dublin); P Murphy (Rosslare); S Hogan (Nenagh); T McLarnon (Massereene)
83 A Fahy (Dun Laoghaire); J Greene (Portmarnock); A McCormack (Castletroy); M Grehan (Tullamore); C Rafferty (Dundalk); P Sheehan (Ballybunion); A Lynch (Bray); S Ryan (The Royal Dublin); S Poucher (Limerick); P Kelly (Co. Armagh); G Young (Nenagh); B McGarry (Nenagh)
84 M Boucher (Carton House); M Horan (Birr); M Looby (Greystones); C Woodroofe (Dun Laoghaire); B Shally (Dromoland); D Foy (Laytown & Bettystown); P O’Connor (Macroom); C Butler (Kinsale); J Hood (Galgorm Castle); M Reddan (Limerick); D Morley (Oughterard)
85 C Kelly (Fort Lauderdale CC, USA); R Dutton (Tandragee); S Sweeney (Vista Valencia USA); S Walsh (Portmarnock); J Rackard (Enniscorthy); R Steedman (Courtown); R Knightly (The Royal Dublin)
86 P Connolly (Killeen Castle); T Neenan (Lahinch); E Leonard (Wentworth/Killiney); C Cunningham (Carton House); P Carey (Nenagh); C Ryan (Dun Laoghaire); C Geraghty (Laytown & Bettystown)
87 S Greenberg (Tandragee); W Small (Tandragee); J Blake (The Island); D McInerney (Lahinch); G McGrane (The Royal Dublin)
88 G O’Connor-Brooks (Lake Bluff Golf Club, USA); S Ledbury (GC de Louvain La Neuve, Belgium); S McGlynn (Portmarnock); A Ryan (Thurles)
89 P Flynn (Tramore); A McDaid (Palmerstown Stud); C Dowling (Mallow); B Tolsma (Apple Valley Golf Club, USA); P Gribben (Warrenpoint); D Sheedy (California GC USA)
90 G Carr (Mullingar); D Crawford (Bundoran)
91 P Fitzpatrick (Kanturk); M Buggy (Castlecomer)
93 C Nolan (Galway)
98 K Connolly (The Heritage)
RTD S Healy (The Royal Dublin)