Colin Montgomerie recaptured the form which saw him dominate European golf in the 1990’s with a course record 63 at Fota Island to take a commanding lead after the first round of the Murphy’s Irish Open.
The Scot, who celebrated his 38th birthday on Saturday, gave himself a belated present with a sparkling eight under par effort which moved him two shots clear of his nearest challengers, Eamonn Darcy and Fredrik Henge, who both opened with 65s.
Three players moved into a share of fourth place on five under par 66, Thomas Björn, Henrik Bjornstad and Gary Evans, Bjornstad the first man on the course while Evans brought the curtain down at the end of the day’s play.
As well as setting the course record for Fota Island, Montgomerie’s opening sortie set a new record for the first round of the Murphy’s Irish Open and equalled his own lowest first round in a tournament – the 1992 European Masters at Crans-sur-Sierre.
Modestly however, Montgomerie played down the plaudits. “It was a good day’s work but I don’t really pay much attention to these records,” he said. “I just go out and do the best I can and it was really good today.
“I came in here (the Press Centre) yesterday and read a few papers this morning and obviously a lot of you felt I was confident and I was. Standing on the first tee it was breezy and the rain was about to start but I was very very confident.
“I like playing here, I’ve always enjoyed it. Of all the Opens I play around Europe this is my best record here in Ireland. The people are great and the support I have, it’s like playing in Scotland – it’s very good, excellent.”
Montgomerie made his intentions clear early in his round with birdies at four of the first seven holes and although he dropped a shot at the eighth when his approach shot missed the green, he immediately made amends at the ninth, holing from five feet to be out in 32.
Turning for home the Scot made a telling thrust at the 500 yard tenth, rolling in a 30 foot putt for eagle three before birdieing the short 11th to move to seven under par for the tournament.
A run of four par figures followed before his round looked in danger of petering out when he ran up a bogey five at the 16th after his drive found a fairway bunker. But Montgomerie saved the best for last, firing a superb five iron second at the 507 yard 18th to four feet from the hole before rolling in his putt for a closing eagle three.
Sharing second place two shots behind the Scot were two players who perfectly epitomised the wide-ranging appeal of The European Tour, 48 year old Irish stalwart Eamonn Darcy and the relatively inexperienced 26 year old Swede Fredrik Henge.
Both played with calm assuredness and only shed one shot between them all day, that coming at the testing 476 yard 15th where the Swede drove into a fairway bunker on his way to a bogey five.
The duo also admitted to both profiting from taking advice, Darcy from the man who caddied for him earlier in the week during a round at The K Club, the venue for next week’s Smurfit European Open, and Henge from his girlfriend who was on his bag for only the third time.
“The chap is called Noel Flanagan, who’s caddied for me before and he was working for me on Monday,” said Darcy. “He watched me hit a putt from two and a half feet and he said it was worst putt he’d ever seen.
“He then said, ‘there’s no point in going down to Cork with a stroke like that’ so he got me to move the ball right back in my stance and I’ve been working on it and gradually feeling more comfortable with it.”
The new approach worked for the Ryder Cup player, who lost his card at the end of last season after finishing 137th on the Volvo Order of Merit, for he rattled in six birdies without loss and even included two testing putts of around ten feet for par on the seventh and 12th holes.
Longest putt for birdie for the Irishman came on the 11th hole where he rolled in a glorious effort from 15 feet after his seven iron tee shot found the centre of the putting surface, shortest being on his opening hole, the tenth, from three feet.
While Darcy’s tip improved his showing on the greens, Henge’s improvement came in his full swing after girlfriend Jenny noticed his right shoulder was too low at address.
“She’s not really a golfer but I asked her what she thought of my swing and she told me – I’m glad she did now because I only hit about five or six shots on the range after that and then took it onto the course and it worked well.”
That proved an understatement as the Swede started with three birdies in a row from the tenth to the 12th and although he dropped a shot at the 15th, he reached the turn in 32 thanks to a birdie at the 18th.
His assault on the Fota Island par continued on his inward half, birdieing three of the last five holes from the fifth to be home in 33.
Of the three players who finished on 66, most pleased was England’s Gary Evans, who put down his improved form to a new aid he wore round his neck for the first time, called Q-Link.
“It’s a copper band and it is supposed to put your body back in balance with your biorhythms and all that,” said Evans. “You know with all the mobile phones that there are out there and all the other stuff with the rays, it is meant to deflect them.
“It’s the first time I’ve played with it and I felt particularly calm out there, not nervy or anything like that. It was a tough day out there, it was windy and rainy and awkward and I just got on with the job.
“Before I’d have been thinking I’ve got the wrong side of the draw here and, why me? – it is easy to fall into that but I am trying now to look at the positive and not the negative. I’m trying not to look behind me all the time, I’m trying to look forward and I think it’s paying dividends.
“The next month there is a lot of big tournaments and if I can get into the right frame of mind, I can get the card out of the way and get on with trying to win one of these darn things.”
Five birdies in an excellent outward half of 30 showed Evans’s form to be right back at the top and a level par inward half of 36 gave him an excellent opportunity to challenge for his first European Tour title over the next three rounds.