x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

McDowell overcomes weather to start strongly at Irish Open

US Open runner-up Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington battle against heavy rain to make impressive starts at Royal Portrush.

Graeme McDowell
Graeme McDowell

It was wet, it was windy, but nothing was going to stop fans turning out in huge numbers today for the first Irish Open in Northern Ireland since 1953.

Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell, the three major champions whose success helped to bring the event back across the border, were always going to have the biggest galleries lining the fairways.

But while none of them was able to break the 70 from Indian Jeev Milkha Singh and France's Gregory Bourdy were certainly not complaining about the number following them as they set the pace - either side of a 95-minute storm delay - with seven under par 65s.

"The atmosphere and the feel to the golf course is fantastic," said the 40-year-old. "When you have so many people cheering and watching you I think you feel great."

England's Mark Foster, part of a group on 66, commented: "It was just amazing out there.

"I got a six o'clock car to the course and, I kid you not, there were people queueing to get in - even though the rain was coming sideways.

"I've never seen a buzz in the players' lounge like there is this week. People are raving about the course and the size of the crowds."

It is the first time organisers put the "sold out" signs up for a regular European Tour event, with 27,000 tickets purchased for each day's play.

Singh, whose own dream is to represent India on the sport's return to the Games in 2016, is a real lover of links golf.

Not that anybody who witnessed his first experience of it would have guessed that - as a 16-year-old in 1988 he competed in the Amateur Championship at Royal Porthcawl in Wales, but had rounds of 87 and 84 there and at Pyle and Kenfig to miss out on the match play stages.

"I thought 'My God, this is tough'. I wasn't used to wearing raingear." He has got used to that now - and clearly improved.

Dubliner Padraig Harrington, playing with McDowell and equally thrilled at seeing the tournament come north, pitched in from around 60 yards for birdie on his penultimate hole and with a 67 is firmly in the hunt.

Defending champion Simon Dyson, the third member of the group, matched that, while Ryder Cup captain Jose Maria Olazabal and Scot Paul Lawrie - playing together for the third time in under two months - both shot 69.

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