American Julian Suri leads battle for Open spots in Ayrshire

Ian Poulter attracted a big crowd for his attempt to try and qualify at home club Woburn for the Open Championship in a fortnight's time. Picture: Getty Images
Ian Poulter attracted a big crowd for his attempt to try and qualify at home club Woburn for the Open Championship in a fortnight's time. Picture: Getty Images
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American Julian Suri led the battle for three spots in the 146th Open Championship after a team armed with squeegees worked wonders to keep Gailes Links playable on a miserable morning in Ayrshire.

Nine greenkeepers and five officials did remarkably well to ensure one of five final qualifiers for the season’s third major stayed on schedule after heavy rain left the chief referee admitting that the situation had reached the “red line”.

The hard work was rewarded as the conditions improved around lunchtime, leaving the scramble for those coveted places at Royal Birkdale to be concluded without the need for waterproofs and umbrellas.

Suri topped the leaderboard after an opening two-under-par 69, helped by a chip in at the seventh then back-to-back birdies at 13th and 14th

“I need to change my socks as they are soaking,” said the 26-year-old, who is the Challenge Tour’s Road to Oman leader, afterwards.

He won on the second-tier circuit in the Czech Republic this season and also finished second in Portugal and third in Switzerland before missing the cut in the Scottish Challenge in Aviemore last week.

“This is the first time I’ve played links golf, having not experienced it before a practice round on Sunday,” added Suri.

Illustrating the tough-scoring conditions, experienced Dutchman Maarten Lafeber was the only other player out of 72 to break par with his 70.

The 42-year-old, who finished 41st in the 2005 Open, birdied the 14th, where he chipped to three feet, and the 18th, hitting a 9-iron to eight feet

“I finished nicely after having a couple of three putts earlier in the round,” said Lafeber.

“It was hard to get the ball close in the conditions and I thought if I could get round or par of better I would be in with a chance this afternoon.”

Six players opened with 71s, including Scottish trio Marc Warren, Connor Syme and Neil Fenwick.

Warren, who passed this test in 2014, was helped by back-to-back birdies at the 13th and 14th as he got off to another promising start.

“It was a grind out there this morning,” admitted the three-time European Tour winner. “I had to play relatively conservatively on a course where I would normally hit driver everywhere.

“It was a case of keeping it in play, especially around the turn, and I would definitely have taken that score halfway round.”

Drumoig amateur Syme also picked up two shots late on to give himself a good chance heading into the afternoon round.

“You have nothing to lose in a 36-hole shoot-out like this,” he said. “I played well and it was nice to make birdies at the 15th and 16th from 12 feet and 20 feet.”

In contrast, Paul Shields was left battering his head in frustration after undoing the good work that had taken him into the lead on three-under after 14 holes with a poor finish.

He followed back-to-back bogeys by dropping two more shots at the 17th before missing a six-foot birdie putt at the last.

“Cheers,” said the Paul Lawrie Golf Centre player in an ironic tone of that finish, which left him having to settle for a 72.

Grant Forrest birdied the last to repair some of the damage caused by a triple-bogey 7 at the 16th as he signed for a 73.

“I made a mess of that hole from the middle of the fairway but other than that didn’t do much wrong,” said the former Walker Cup player.

A year after opening with a 64 on his way to winning the same event, Swede Oscar Arvidsson put himself out of the reckoning this time around after a 79.

Ayrshireman Jack Doherty, who came close to forcing a play-off with Colin Montgomerie for the last spot 12 months ago, also had little chance of getting into the mix after a 75.

Elsewhere, Raymond Russell was sitting three shots off the lead, held by Canadian Austin Connelly, after a first-round 71 at Royal Cinque Ports in Kent.

Lothians man Russell is trying to secure a return to Royal Birkdale, where he finished fourth behind Mark O’Meara in the 1998 Open.

At Woburn, local hero Ian Poulter started his second round just two shots off the lead, held by Steven Lewton and Toby Tree, after an opening 70.