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PHOTO: Gary Ward (Kinsale) during the opening round of the AIG Irish Close Championship at Rosapenna. Image by Cashman Photography.LIVE SCORINGTEE TIMES
Kinsale's Gary Ward proved the only player to break par as the North West winds played their part on day one of the AIG Men's Irish Amateur Close Championship at Rosapenna.
The final event of the season brings the curtain down on this year's Bridgestone Order of Merit but it was Ward, not in the reckoning for that honour, who returned a remarkable two-under par round of 70 to lead the way at Sandy Hills.
With five birdies and just a single bogey on the card playing the last, it could've been even better for the Cork IT student but for a double-bogey at his closing hole.Still, all things considered, with winds averaging between 35-37 kmph across the celebrated links, Ward was understandably thrilled to be home and hosed, two strokes clear of Galway Bay's Andrew Hickey and Monkstown's Sean Desmond sharing second at even par.
"The way I thought to play today was literally, don't lose a ball," Ward reflected.
"After I played my practice round yesterday it was pretty clear that missing left or right was a no go. I definitely played well today – hit close to every fairway, bar the 18th – but I'm pretty happy that I did what I wanted to do."
Ward admits that his recent form is probably the best of his young career but far from crediting hours of practice and intense coaching, it's been a more relaxed attitude towards his golf that's paid dividends.
"I have kept to myself and tried to enjoy golf a little bit more this year because every other aspect of life has been a little bit tough," he explained.
"Golf was the thing that kept a smile on the face. I'm in 4th year in CIT, finding it tough at the moment so hopefully it will change in the first few months."
Another man who found things tough, albeit for a completely different reason, was second placed Desmond who experienced the full wrath of the wind before ever stepping foot on the golf course on Friday.
"I was just taking the bag out of the car 15 minutes before teeing off and it got blown over by a gust of wind and when I went to pull the driver out, the club was in two," said Desmond, whose even par effort is all the more impressive given the start.
"I went into Frank Casey Jnr and he loaned me a (Titleist) TS3 driver which is the same model as mine. I didn't realise it was a half inch longer until I went to give it back to him either because I felt I was gripping down on it."It didn't actually make a difference because with the way the course was playing you had to plot it around and I hit a lot of two irons."
Race to the Bridgestone title
This week also marks the final event in this year's Bridgestone Order of Merit where Alan Fahy (240 points) entered the tournament holding a commanding 60-point lead.
However, such was the carnage caused by the howling gale across Sandy Hills on Friday, the table has been blown wide open after the Dun Laoghaire ace could only manage a nine-over par round of 81.
Meanwhile, the man closest to Fahy, Galway's Liam Nolan, was unable to take advantage of the leader's stuttering start, posting a nine-over par effort of his own as players struggled to get to grips with the weather.
With Peter O'Keeffe, Mark Power and Jason Rackard all missing this week, a half dozen players teed up still in with a chance of taking the chequered flag and of the six, Carton House's Marc Boucher, who sits fourth on the Bridgestone board (148), enjoyed the best of it on day one; the Dubliner signing for a four-over par round of 76 that puts him in a tie for 13th overnight.
Aaron Ryan is just a shot further back at five-over. The Thurles player trails Boucher by 28 points in the Order of Merit race but with a 130 point windfall awarded to this week's champion, much can change, with Ryan currently seventh on the table.As for the other contenders, Boucher's clubmate Keith Egan carded three birdies as well as a quintuple-bogey 10 in his round of 79 – seven-over par.
Egan is fifth on the table with 128 points while Newlands star Jake Whelan (110) will need something close to a miracle to overturn an opening round 86 – 14-over par – if he's to salvage his Order of Merit hopes ahead of Sunday's final round.
After close of play on Sunday, the top-3 on the Order of Merit will be automatically selected to Golf Ireland's first men's High Performance Panel.
The top-39 plus ties after two rounds will make the cut for the final round.