England’s Mark Foster was the early clubhouse leader as The Irish Open returned to Northern Ireland after a gap of 59 years.
Watched by a sell-out crowd – a first on The European Tour in a regular event – which included First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy Martin McGuinness, Foster posted a six under par 66 at Royal Portrush Golf Club.
That left the 36 year old, winner of one title in more than 300 starts, one stroke ahead of a group which included Padraig Harrington and defending champion Simon Dyson.
Out on the world famous links, however, Indian Jeev Milkha Singh went to the turn in a six under 30 and with another birdie at the long tenth led the tournament by one.
Graeme McDowell, the first of the three Northern Irish stars into action in a week which means so much to them all, had to be content with a one under par round of 71, double-bogeying the 581 yard 17th hole after seeing his pitch from the rough fly over the green into bushes.
McDowell commented: “I was a couple under when the rain was at its worst, but then went in the bushes and was fighting from then on.”
Fellow Major winners Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke were among the later starters facing windier conditions, and the prospect of further heavy rain.
“When we came to the course this morning, the rain was sideways and yet people were queuing to get in,” said Foster.
“It’s amazing here, and I’ve never heard a buzz about the course that there is in the players’ lounge this week.
“It was throwing it down when we got up, but that was no surprise and you’ve just got to be professional about it.
“At least it was not that windy. But that will come – the course will show its teeth, no problem.”
Foster was six under par through ten holes himself, then rolled in a nine footer for birdie on the 13th, but bogeyed the 15th after chipping into a bunker and then hitting the flagstick with his recovery.
Harrington pitched in on the eighth hole – his 17th – for one of six birdies, but three-putting the last for a par “knocked the shine off” the previous hole.
“It was incredible to see so many people here so early on a miserable day – very impressive,” Harrington said. “And it’s only Thursday!”
Singh remained on seven under par with six holes left to play, while Foster was joined on six under when Swede Michael Jonzon birdied the second and fifth.
Scot Paul Lawrie, third in The Ryder Cup points table, and European Captain José María Olazábal were paired for the third tournament in under two months, and both had three under par rounds of 69.
Three days after winning The Open Championship qualifier at Sunningdale, England’s James Morrison had something else to celebrate – a hole-in-one at the 14th known as ‘Calamity Corner’ earned him a BMW 6 Series Gran Coupé.
It also took the former Madeira Islands Open winner to three under par, four shots behind Singh, while McIlroy was one under after two holes and Clarke level par after four.
McIlroy had girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki in town with him after her shock first round defeat at Wimbledon.
Matthew Zions made it a three-way tie for the clubhouse lead with four birdies in his last four holes.
The Australian, a winner in St Omer last year but without a top-20 finish this campaign, said: “I got off to a good start, which I seem to be doing a lot lately.
“It was just nice to kind of tie it all together today. I did everything well, and I drove it really well. The course requires a lot of accuracy off the tee, and I was able to keep it in play today.”
Singh bogeyed the short 14th hole, but closed with a birdie to go back to the top on his own with a seven under par round of 65.
That came just before play was suspended at 3.05pm because of an approaching storm – with McIlroy two under par after eight holes, but Clarke two over at the turn.