American Frank Ford III leads the way at Royal Portrush
American Frank Ford III grabbed the first round lead and was closely followed by an Irish international and former US Walker Cup captain.
Ford was one of the early starters and he took full advantage. Despite a stumbling start, the 59-year-old recovered well to sign for a three-under-par 69. Mourne’s Hugh Smyth and Marvin Giles, 1993 US Walker Cup captain, both carded 70s, while South Africa’s Jock Wellington shot 71.
A trio of players carded level par 72s to share fifth, including home favourite Garth McGimpsey, last year’s runner-up Chip Lutz from the United States and compatriot Jeff Burda.
When all the numbers were added up it meant only seven competitors in the 144-player field matched par or better on the testing 6,836yard, par 72 Dunluce Links. The championship layout was in pristine condition but with thick rough and well positioned bunkers, not to mention slick greens, accuracy was at a premium.
The leading scores tended to come in the calmer morning conditions for as the day wore on the breeze stiffened along the dramatic Antrim coastline. The obvious exceptions were Giles and Wellington playing in the penultimate group.
Ford's round was something of a slow burner as the South Carolina golfer ran up a double bogey seven at the par-five second after failing to get out of a bunker at the first attempt. However, it proved to be his only mistake as back-to-back birdies at the ninth and 10th – both par fives - got the Charleston resident back on level terms.
The day got even better as Ford recorded three birdies in the last four holes.
"That was a great round for me given that I started so poorly," said Ford, who has played in the Amateur on three previous occasions in his younger years. “After the double-bogey I just hung in there and took it one hole at a time. It turned out to be one of those rounds which picked up momentum as it went on.”
Smyth played a very steady round before saving the best for last in a grandstand finish when the 61-year-old holed a long 40-foot putt across the 18th green for birdie.
"Nice one to finish with, huge relief. From where I was on the right edge, it was three-putt territory," said Smyth, content with his opening day's work in the 54-hole strokeplay championship.
This year's Irish Seniors Amateur champion picked up birdies at the fifth and ninth to turn in two-under 34. Smyth’s only mistake came at the 12th when he found the infamous 'Purgatory' bunker and was forced to "take his medicine" and came away with a bogey five.
"Generally I played very well and am happy with the start," added Smyth. "The key out here is to hit it straight off the tee. The greens and pin positions were quite tricky and needed plenty of attention but the course is in great condition."
McGimpsey, Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup captain in 2003 and 2005, had differing success on either nine. Two birdies at the second and sixth brought the Bangor golfer out in 34 but bogeys at 12 and 15 meant coming home in 38.
"Level par was a good score, I didn’t blow myself out of the competition and am still in with a good chance," said McGimpsey, a five-time winner of the Golfing Union of Ireland’s North of Ireland Championship played at the same Antrim venue. "Bit of a cliché but it’s true; you can’t win it on the first day but you can lose it.”
Ireland’s Arthur Pierse was a shot further back after an eventful one-over 73 left him in an eight-way tie for eighth. The 2007 Seniors Open Amateur champion (Nairn Golf Club) hit his opening tee shot out of bounds on the right, ran up a double-bogey six, then three-putted five of the next seven greens before turning in five-over 41.
It's a wonder the Tipperary native managed to get back on track, but experience told and he eventually found his touch on the greens and enjoyed four birdies in the last six holes to come home in four-under 32.
"That was one of the best 73s I’ve ever shot because for a while I’d played my way out of the tournament," said a relaxed, yet relieved, Pierse after his round. “Sometimes you just have to stay patient and thankfully it came good in the end.”
Defending champion Paul Simson, who won at Walton Heath in 2010 to deny Lutz, was left to rue a cold putter on his way to an opening five-over 77.
"That was a frustrating round, I simply couldn’t hole a putt but I’m not letting this thing go just yet, there’s still a long way to go," said Simson, looking for his fourth Seniors Open Amateur title in six years - he won in 2006, 2008, and 2010.
Other former US Walker Cup captains fared less well; Danny Yates returned a 76 and George “Buddy” Marucci 77.
After tomorrow’s (Thursday) second round the field, aged 55 and over, will be cut to the top 60 and ties, who will contest the final round on Friday.