Colin Montgomerie on course to qualify for The Open

IRVINE, SCOTLAND - JUNE 28: Caddy Alastair McLean points to the 15th green with Colin Montgomerie at Gailes Links Golf Course on June 28, 2016 in Irvine, Scotland. (Photo by Christian Cooksey/R&A/R&A via Getty Images)
IRVINE, SCOTLAND - JUNE 28: Caddy Alastair McLean points to the 15th green with Colin Montgomerie at Gailes Links Golf Course on June 28, 2016 in Irvine, Scotland. (Photo by Christian Cooksey/R&A/R&A via Getty Images)
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Bidding to qualify for an Open Championship on home turf, Colin Montgomerie thrilled a sizeable crowd by getting in the first-round mix in Final Qualifying at Gailes Links.

The 53-year-old, who is connected to Royal Troon, where his dad, James, served as club secretary, finished with four birdies in the last six holes for a five-under-par 66 at the Ayrshire venue.

The effort was bettered only by one player, unheralded Swede Oskar Arvidsson, as Montgomerie put himself on course for a spot in an event being played a few miles down the coast in a fortnight’s time.

Frenchman Raphael Marguery, who is making his first attempt to qualify for the season’s third major, was lying third at the halfway stage on 67, with Irish duo Kevin Phelan and Gavin Moynihan two shots further back.

Montgomerie, who made 21 consecutive Open appearances before seeing that impressive run come to an end after finishing joint-68th in 2010, had been preparing at Gailes Links for this attempt since the end of last week.

That work paid an immediate dividend as he took an iron off the tee at the first before playing a lovely approach to three feet for an opening birdie. “This is an easy game,” said the eight-time European No 1 with a massive smile as he headed to the second tee.

Still one under six to play, having repaired a bogey at the fourth with a birdie at the eigth, Montgomerie moved up a gear over the closing stretch in intermittent rain.

He rolled in birdie putts from 22 feet and eight feet at the 13th and 14th, converted a monster close to 50 feet at the 16th then knocked his approach to four feet at the 17th for another birdie.

After narrowly missing the fairway at the last, the three-time Senior major winner came up short with his second but made a testing six-footer for a closing par.

Arvidsson, 25, shrugged off his lowly world ranking of 1,418th to set the pace with a flawless effort that was ignited by an opening eagle, having hit his drive to 25 feet at the 346-yard first hole.

“I gave myself a lot of opportunites out there and was able to hole a few putts, which was pleasing,” said Arvidsson, who is in his second season on the Asian Development Tour.

“I love links golf - in fact, that’s why I am here. I played on this course in the qualifying rounds for the Amateur Championship a few years ago and I would definitely say it’s a course that suits my eye.”

Marguery, a 29-year-old who is making his first attempt to qualify for the game’s oldest major, signed for six birdies on a morning when he was pleased with all aspects of his play.

“Almost all of my birdies were from a short distance while I also made a number of good two-putts from long way from the hole,” said the Alps Tour player who won the Arcachon Open on a French circuit this year.

“This is my sixth year as a professional but I have had to wait until I got a world ranking to get into the Final Qualifying.”

Former Walker Cup players Phelan and Moynihan had two and four birdies respectively in their opening efforts while others in contention heading into the second round included Clitheroe’s Mark Young, one of the qualifiers at the same venue 12 months ago.

“I missed a lot of chances in the middle of the round,” he said after a 70, having birdied the fifth and eighth to turn in two-under before giving one of those shots back at the 13th.

“I felt I should have been four-under at the turn but then had a bit of a wobble like last year,” he added.

The rain had started by the time Young finished and he reported: “The course is a bit softer so is playing longer than in the past for this event. As always, though, it is in superb condition.”

Among a handful of players to retire during the morning round was Walker Cup player Ewen Ferguson, who lasted only six holes before pulling out due to a wrist problem.