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Friday, 19 March 2010

Eleven weeks before one Welshman, Ian Woosnam, takes centre stage as Europe’s Ryder Cup Captain at The K Club, it was another golfer of the same nationality who enjoyed his day in the spotlight in front of the biggest single-day crowd at the first round of the Smurfit Kappa European Open.

Thanks to the patronage of Ulster Bank, which offered free general admission for the first round, an attendance of 29,032 experienced the excitement of The European Tour at close quarters, with Dredge and Swede Niclas Fasth ending “Super Thursday” on top of the leaderboard on 65, seven under par.

The attendance beat the previous highest total of 28,532 for the final day’s play in 2002 and no less an authority than past champion, Darren Clarke, paid a handsome tribute to the initiative.

The Ulsterman admitted the generosity of his home bank had contributed significantly to the excitement of the day over the Smurfit Course and said: “It’s always great when there are people out watching and it’s better to play in front of 29,000 than 2,000. It was a fantastic thing for Ulster Bank and the Irish Tourist Board. When we are broadcasting pictures of Ireland around the world, it can only help to have huge crowds.”

Dredge finished the day level with Fasth and one shot ahead of Argentina’s Angel Cabrera and Paul Casey of England, with his WGC-World Cup-winning partner, Stephen Dodd one of three players sharing fifth place on 67.

The seven under par cards signed by Dredge and Fasth matched the course record set by Justin Rose when the event was last played over the Smurfit Course in 2004. And in common with many of the players in the field, both leaders know that the big points available this month can help significantly in turning Ryder Cup dreams into reality.

John Bickerton’s victory in the Open de France ALSTOM last week ensured he entered the race to return to The K Club in September under Woosnam’s captaincy in tenth automatic spot. The first round leaders have some ground to make up to catch the front runners, but a haul of 578,792 Ryder Cup points on Sunday would greatly assist both men.

“There are big, big prizes at stake at the moment,” said Dredge, whose solitary individual European Tour success came in the Madeira Island Open. “I am a bit behind at the moment but if I can play well from now on, then I’ve got a chance. If you have a good run you can do a bit of damage on The Ryder Cup points board.

“There are still eight or nine weeks of golf left and a lot can change because the events are so big. John Bickerton won a massive prize last week and he goes to tenth on the Points List. You just have to get your head down and try to win a tournament and do as well as you can.”

Fasth, who has already won this season in Spain, already knows the thrill of playing in a Ryder Cup, having been part of the 2002 winning team at The De Vere Belfry. He commented; “I feel disappointed with how I’ve been playing in general because the game is there, the swing is there and the putting is there. I’ve struggled to play as well as I should. I am trying to get back into my rhythm and doing things my way and hopefully the results will follow.”

Casey, winner of the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles last month, could have joined the pair on 65 but dropped a shot on the eighth, his 17th, to slip back alongside 2005 BMW Champion, Cabrera.

“I’m very happy with that,” he said. “I was aiming for something in the sixties and was very pleasantly surprised with 65.  I have worked very hard on my game and I am trying to approach every week individually and go into that week trying to figure out how I can be in contention at the end of the week.”

Casey, with birdies at all four par fives, is nicely in contention for the €100,000 diamond provided by Appleby Jewellers in Dublin for anyone who can play the par fives in 13 under par or better by the end of the tournament. Nice work if you can hit the ball far enough like Casey!

Cabrera, whose big-hitting exploits earned him one of Europe’s prime titles at Wentworth Club in May 2005, was extremely bullish about his chances after his opening 66. Asked if the course suited him, the Argentine player declared: “The way I hit the ball today, any course would suit me!”

Maarten Lafeber of The Netherlands won a weekend for two at The K Club and a magnum of Laurent and Perrier champagne for his hole in one at the 174 yard second hole, using a six iron.

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Tournament Leaderboard

Pos Player nameNatHolePar
1DODD, StephenWAL18-9
T2LARA, José ManuelESP18-7
T2WALL, AnthonyENG18-7
T4SINGH, Jeev MilkhaIND18-6
T4WESTWOOD, LeeENG18-6
T4MCGINLEY, PaulIRL18-6
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