Superb 63 gives Singh the lead

India’s Jeev Milkha Singh outclassed the rest of the field in the first round of the Irish Open on Thursday.

India’s Jeev Milkha Singh outclassed the rest of the field in the first round of the Irish Open on Thursday.

Singh shot an eight-under-par 63 to take a two-shot lead over closest rival Alexandre Kaleka, a little-known Tour rookie from France, at Killarney Golf & Fishing Club after the first day of the European Tour event.

In doing so, Singh also outshone Ireland’s four major stars – Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington – in their own backyard.

The 39-year-old son of a former Olympic sprinter known as the ‘The Flying Sikh’ made six birdies and an eagle to equal the lowest round of his career to date.

Singh outperformed new Open champ Darren Clarke by six shots, US Open champ Rory McIlroy by seven, former US Open champ Graeme McDowell by nine, and three-time major winner Padraig Harrington by a full ten strokes.

Another Irishman, Paul McGinley, was full of praise for Singh, and his putting in particular, calling it some of the best he’d ever seen.

“I don’t know whether it was a good thing or a bad thing, but 59 did cross my mind,” said Singh, a three-time Tour winner whose career stalled last year after shoulder and back injuries.

He would have needed four birdies from his final four holes to achieve it, and though he had to settle for pars only, it has still given him a two-shot cushion heading into Friday’s second round.

Singh also said he took a lot of confidence from his performance in Sweden last week, where the par-three 17th, featuring an island green that caused nightmares for the pros amid strong winds on Sunday, did not get the better of him. In fact, he made one of only three birdies there on the day.

Most of the assembled crowd walking the course on Thursday were there to see their local stars, however, and Darren Clarke said of his walk up the 18th: “I felt like I was winning a tournament – it’s been very special.”

Though he confessed that he was still not 100% after his extended post-Open victory celebrations, Clarke refused to make any excuses, and was still the best performer out of the four Irish stars thanks to a two-under-par 69.

“I didn’t come here to make up the numbers,” he added. “I hit a lot of good shots and had lots of chances, but didn’t quite have the speed of the greens.”

Rory McIlroy, meanwhile, was beginning to look as if he might run away with the first round when he made his fourth birdie of the day at the 10th hole.

At that stage, early in the day, he was the picture of cool confidence as he strode to the 11th tee at four-under and with a two shot lead, but Thursday’s first round wasn’t going to be as kind to him as he may have thought.

It had a good few twists and turns awaiting him and by the end of his round, he had lost three shots and tumbled down to a one-under-par 70.

“I didn’t drive it great all day,” said McIlroy, who also got into a heated Twitter exchange with an American critic after his round. “I was caught in two minds quite a few times out there, which isn’t usually like me.”

McDowell, fresh from missing the cut at Sandwich, is still struggling with a sore back, and could do no better than a one-over 72.

“It generally loosens out,” he said of his back problem, “but didn’t really this morning and I got a little stuck with a few irons shots.”

“It’s not alarm bells, just a little bit of stiffness. I might have a couple of medicinal pints tonight just to loosen the back!”

Harrington’s bemoaned his lack of good fortune after posting a first-round 73.

“Golf is a strange game,” said the Dubliner. “At one under (after 10) I was thinking four under and it turned around very quickly.”

He bogeyed three of the next four holes, and parred in from there.

Second-placed Kaleka shot a 65, thanks to a string of five birdies from the 12th hole, and then another at the last.

In joint third, one behind Kaleka and three off Singh’s lead, are Swede Christian Nilsson, Germany’s Marcel Siem and New Zealander Michael Campbell, ranked 701st in the world but performing well so far this week thanks to an eagle and three birdies in his last five holes.

Defending champion Ross Fisher was only one further back after a 67, alongside nine others.