Tramore's Robin Dawson played like a man twice his age as he plotted his way to an impressive six-under-par 65 to lead the Flogas Irish Amateur Open at a sun-splashed Royal County Down.
Without a big individual win since he claimed the Irish Boys title in 2013, the elegant 22-year-old Waterford man kept a cool head to make seven birdies in idyllic conditions at the Newcastle venue to lead by three stokes from Castle's Alex Gleeson and England's Alex Fitzpatrick, younger brother of Ryder Cup player Matthew.
On a day when just 17 players broke par, Gleeson birdied the first and second a followed a dropped shot at the fifth with birdies at the seventh and eight to turn in 32.
One of four Irishmen in the St Andrews Trophy squad, he got to four under with another birdie at the 11th. But after bogeys at the 15th and 17th threatened to undo all his good work, he finished with birdie four before being joined on three-under late in the day by Fitzpatrick, who played the 10th, 11th and 12th in birdie-par-eagle to get to four under before dropping a shot at the drivable 16th.
"I wasn’t expecting that standing on the first tee," said Dawson, who is Ireland's leading contenders for a place in the St Andrews Trophy team to face the Continent of Europe in July.
"I had a good strategy, just played it one shot at a time and it added up to 65 shots.
"It’s all about playing your way around here. You don’t have to do anything flash. It’s just about placing the ball in the right positions."
After an easy birdie at the first, Dawson hit an eight iron stone dead at the second, then made a 25 footer at the third and a 15 footer at the sixth before making a chip and putt par at the tricky, par-three seventh.
He dropped his only shot of the day at the tough eighth but the key to his round arguably came at the iconic ninth, when he drove into the mound on the left but resisted the temptation to go for the green, laying up to 70 yards before getting up and down for par.
"It could have been a disaster if I took it on, so I decided to lay up and I am going to make five at worst," he confessed. "That was a good part of the round, stopping myself from taking it on because it is easy to take things on."
He went on to pick up further shots at the par-five 12th, the par-three 14th and the par-five 18th for his 65.
"I putted lovely today,” added Dawson, who is now playing full-time golf after graduating from Maynooth University last year. "I got the pace of the greens and away I went. I holed a couple of outrageous ones.”
He believes experience has made him "older and wiser" and that was apparent at the tricky, short seventh, where he got up and down for par from over the green.
"Myself and Peter O’Keeffe had a chipping competition from down there yesterday," he said. "I hit about 20 shots so if I didn’t hit it close I’d be kicking myself anyway."
Balbriggan's Robbie Cannon, the 2013 champion, shot an early 69 to finish the day in an eight-way tie for fourth with the likes of England's world number eighth Matthew Jordan on two-under while Rosslare’s Gary Collins and Cairndhu’s Stephen Watts (who started his day with a triple bogey eight) shot one-under 70s to share 12th.
Defending champion O'Keeffe struggled to the turn in four-over 39 but stormed home in 32 for a level par 71, finishing with three birdies to share 17th with Galway's Ronan Mullarney, Athenry’s Alan Hill, Portmarnock’s James Fox and Belvoir Park’s Patrick Brennan.
Mallow’s James Sugrue, the reigning South of Ireland champion, was one under with three to play but took six at the short par-four 16th en route to a one-over 72 and a tie for 31st.
Flogas Irish Amateur Open, Royal County Down (Par 71)
65 R Dawson (Tramore);
68 A Fitzpatrick (Eng), A Gleeson (Castle);
69 J Skov Olesen (Den), M Saulez (RSA), D Hague (Eng), M Jordan (Eng), D Rauch (Ger), R Cannon (Balbriggan), K Reitan (Norway), A Wilson (Eng);
70 G Collins (Rosslare), J Hapgood (Wal), B Gill (Eng), S Watts (Cairndhu), C Thornton (Eng), N Bachem (Ger);
71 P O’Keeffe (Douglas), C Woollam (RSA), R Mullarney (Galway), G Bloor (Eng), A Hill (Athenry), J Fox (Portmarnock), J Gough (Eng), T Nel (RSA), G Chevalier (Fra), J Wilson (Sco), D Langley (Eng), P Brennan (Belvoir Park), P Melching (Ned);
72 L Sanges (Wal), E Walker (Sco), L Shepherd (Eng), M Hammer (Ger), C Barrow (Sco), C Strickland (Eng), E McIntosh (Sco), M Mitchell (RSA), J Sugrue (Mallow);
73 C Mansfield (RSA), T Carter (Eng), J Brady (Rosslare), T Vaillant (Fra), Q Debove (Fra), J Cope (Eng), R Williams (Eng), R Brazill (Naas), J Yates (Naas), J Mc Donnell (Forrest Little), N Poppleton (Eng), D Brophy (Castleknock), B Hutchinson (Eng), F Hanisch (Ger), C Denvir (Elm Park), B Chamberlain (Wal), J Schaper (RSA), J Pierse (Portmarnock);
74 C Lamprecht (RSA), F Carr (Kirkistown Castle), R Neergaard-Petersen (Den), M Norton (Belvoir Park), J Mis (Eng), A Maguire (Laytown & Bettystown), T Vahlenkamp (Ger), A Edwards-Hill (Eng), A Petit (Fra), C Rafferty (Dundalk), J Sundborg (Eng), S Done (Eng), B Anderson (The Royal Dublin), K Cantley (Sco), S Easton (Sco), T Clements (Eng), J Davies (Wal), B McKenzie (Eng);
75 B Jones (Eng), M Waite (Eng), C Farr (Eng), R Williamson (Holywood), D Germishuys (RSA), J McMahon (Eng), D Howie (Sco), J Johnston (Sco), G Lenehan (Portmarnock), R Foley (Switzerland), A Flanagan (Eng), A Grant (Dundalk), M Martin (Eng);
76 S Locke (Sco), A Plumb (Eng), O Huggins (Eng), R Moran (Castle), D McAleenon (Edenmore), J Glenn (Eng), R Pierse (Grange), T Thurloway (Eng), D Brown (Eng), J de Bruyn (Ger), H Goddard (Eng);
77 J Madden (Royal Portrush), J Whelan (Newlands), P Coughlan (Castleknock), M Ryan (New Ross), N Muller (Fra), W Nienaber (RSA), J Bolton (Eng), M Power (Kilkenny);
78 A McDougall (Sco), A Laussot (Fra), K Egan (Carton House), T Plumb (Eng), J Gaunt (Eng), H Foley (The Royal Dublin), L Abrial (Fra), R Dutton (Tandragee), G Petrozzi (Eng), E Farrell (Ardee), P Mullins (Wal), T McLarnon (Massereene);
79 R Black (Hilton Templepatrick), D Coghlan (Portmarnock), J Fletcher (Warrenpoint), D Mary (Fra), T Sloman (Eng);
80 E Smith (Laytown & Bettystown), O Crooks (Bushfoot), D Kitt (Athenry), W Porter (Sco);
81 J Walsh (Castle), W Small (Tandragee), G Frimodt (Den), M Lamb (Eng), T Shin (Eng);
82 D McNeill (Sco), J Paterson (Sco), C Woodroofe (Dun Laoghaire);
83 R Knightly (The Royal Dublin);
86 M d’Harcourt (Fra).