Christy O’Connor Jnr made an impressive start to his defence of the Senior British Open, presented by MasterCard title when he opened with a battling two under par 69 in difficult conditions at Newcastle Co. Down, Northern Ireland.
O’Connor, 51, goes into the second round two shots behind leader, Australia’s Noel Ratcliffe and one adrift of South Africa’s John Bland, America’s Hubert Green and Welshman, Craig Defoy after a round that started with an eagle on the 502-yard 1st and ended with three birdies in his last three holes.
“It’s very, very tough out there,” said O’Connor who won his first Senior British Open title at Royal Portrush 12 months ago. “The ground is so hard that you have to be very careful where you land the ball. The tee shots are all right but the second shots into the green are a nightmare because the approaches are absolutely bullet hard. You just have to hold your breath until your shots come to rest.”
O’Connor Jnr, who finished tied for 60th at last week’s Open at the Old Course, and has won almost $230,000 in 16 starts in the PGA Senior Tour in the States this season, was paired with both Bland and Green in the most successful a group of the day.
“I was playing with two very good shot makers out there today and it showed,” said O’Connor. “Neither them is used to playing in conditions like these but you wouldn’t have thought so watching the way they manoeuvred the ball into the greens. It was very impressive.”
Ratcliffe, who missed out on a place in the play-off with Gary Player and Bland two years ago when he bogeyed the last at Royal Portrush, picked up four birdies on the back nine without a dropped shot to take the lead.
“This course requires you to concentrate a hell of a lot. You need to have a lot of feel for the shot, which I’m pretty good at and I’m pretty good around the greens, but it is hard work.”
Bland comes into this championship having been second on both his previous appearances.
“I love these type of courses,” he said. “Coming out of America this is so nice. I’ve played in this twice and finished second twice. I was second to Gary (Player) when he beat me in a play-off (in 1997) and second last year to Christy. I hope this will be third time lucky but there’s a long way to go.”
Earlier in the day, the 1995 and 1996 champion, Brian Barnes, withdrew after five holes suffering from rheumatoid arthritis in his wrists and now faces an uncertain future in competitive golf.
“It’s a shame, he said. “I still love playing golf but it’s no fun at all playing in pain like this.”
“I haven’t made a final decision yet, but I’m hoping to move into TV work next season, and if I do, I might even hang up my clubs altogether.
“When I arrived here on Tuesday and saw the hard ground I knew I was in trouble.
“This morning, it was bad enough when we teed off but then, when the wind started to get up, and I had to start hitting down on the ball, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get round
.”It’s a great shame because I love this tournament but there’s not much I can do about it. Basically, the doctors have told me I’m in the wrong job”
This is the second time that Barnes has had to withdraw from the Senior British Open. In 1997, he arrived at Royal Portrush to defend the title he had won in the previous two years, opened with a promising 70, but then had to withdraw suffering from acute pain in his knees.