Jeev Milkha Singh fired a seven under par round of 65 to claim the clubhouse lead at The Irish Open before play was suspended due to inclement weather at Royal Portrush Golf Club.
The Indian carded eight birdies and a single bogey before a storm halted play for 95 minutes, with a 4.40pm resumption scheduled.
Singh, who was presented with a 21 year old bottle of single malt whisky by Darren Clarke before the event, had precious little experience of playing links golf growing up in Chandigarh, but mastered the course and conditions in a dynamic display.
“I love links golf, you have to hit a lot of low shots and you have to have a lot of imagination,” said the three-time European Tour champion.
“I think a lot of feel and imagination is required, and that’s what I love about links golf. The atmosphere and the feel to the golf course is just fantastic. It looks and feels just great.
“Growing up, I never played a links golf course. The first time I played a links golf course was when I came for the Open Qualifying, it must have been about 20 years ago, and I enjoyed every bit of it – even though it was really tough.
“I thought: How can you play courses like this, in these conditions? It’s so tough! But now I just love it.”
Of the gift he received from Clarke, the avowed whisky connoisseur said: “Darren presented me with a 21 year old Bushmills single malt, which was very gracious of him. I like to have some whisky once in a while, especially with my father on Sunday nights. He likes it as well. So I’ll sit down with him after the tournament, have a nice chat and have a drink with him. I really enjoy doing that.”
Jeev’s father Milkha Singh, a former Olympic athlete nicknamed ‘The Flying Sikh’, is the subject of a Bollywood movie which is currently in production.
Singh said: “The director and the producer spent a lot of time with him. It’s an inspirational movie called Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and it’s going to be released on the 26th of January next year on the public holiday, that’s the plan.
“I think the filming is going along really well. That’s what we hear from the director, the producer and the actors. Hopefully it’s going to make a lot of difference to some people. It’s just going to be about his life story, from his childhood until he started running. I think it’s going to be really good.”
Singh was one ahead of English pair Mark Foster and Andrew Marshall, as well as Australian Matthew Zions.
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.
That left the 36 year old, a winner of one title in more than 300 starts, one stroke ahead of a group which included Padraig Harrington and defending champion Simon Dyson.
“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.”
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.
Zions made it a three-way tie for second place 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.”
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!”
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.
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.
His friend and fellow Major Champion Rory McIlroy had girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki in town with him after her shock first round defeat at Wimbledon.
Play was suspended at 3.05pm because of an approaching storm – with McIlroy two under par after eight holes, but reigning Open Champion Clarke was on two over par at the turn.