ON THE course he designed, David J Russell was worried he might embarrass himself in front of his peers. He also had the added pressure of having the “boss” as his pro-am partner. In the circumstances, it was a splendid effort by the 61-year-old to emerge from the opening round of the £250,000 Prostate Cancer UK Scottish Senior Open at Archerfield Links sitting in a share of the lead.
On a blustery day on the East Lothian coast, Russell overcame what he described as “funny nerves” to sign for a two-under-par 70 on the Fidra Links, an effort that was subsequently matched by Australian Peter O’Malley, who will forever be remembered in the home of golf for denying the Saltire-emblazoned Colin Montgomerie in the 1992 Scottish Open at Gleneagles, and unheralded Englishman Gary Marks.
Eight players, including Scottish-born duo Stephen McAllister and Gordon Manson, are sitting on one-under, but there was no denying that the man wearing the biggest smile on emerging from the scorers’ hut belonged to Russell. A Brummie, he’s had an association with this venue since 2001, when he started to lay out the first of its two courses for owner Kevin Doyle, and now lives in East Lothian.
Yet, while he knows the layout being used for this week’s 54-hole tournament better than anyone, yesterday was a new experience. “It was strange because I don’t think I’ve marked a card professionally here before, so that was a bit daunting, especially when I know where all the trouble is,” revealed Russell. According to playing partner Gordon Brand Jnr, the host did himself proud. “You could tell he knows the course like the back of his hand, especially on the greens,” said the Scot after a 72 that mirrored Russell’s effort in the sense that both raced to the turn before trying to limit any damage on the more exposed back nine.
“It was a hell of a test,” declared Russell, who has been devoting a lot of his time lately to a major renovation project at Machrie Links on Islay but received an instant reward for getting himself prepared for this event as he chases a first win since the 2012 French Riviera Masters. “They were kind with a few of the tees today, but the greens were a bit awkward, especially in that wind.”
With Doyle as his partner – the pro-am section concludes today before the stage is left for the professionals in the final round – he was delighted to get into red figures early on with an eagle-3 at the second. “That settled me down,” said Russell of reducing the 503-yard hole to a drive and 7-iron then knocking in a 12-foot putt.
Summing up his day, the host added: “I enjoyed it, but it was a bit daunting, to say the least. I would imagine that there was a certain amount of anticipation locally and you don’t want to embarrass yourself around your own golf course. I’ve still got two days to do that, but at least I will sleep well tonight and know that I managed to break par.”
With his wife, Jill, on caddying duties for the first time, O’Malley also used an eagle at the second as the springboard for his promising start. A recent recruit to the Senior ranks, having only turned 50 in June, he also revealed that a profitable day on the greens had been inspired by the new world No 1, Jordan Spieth. “I was watching him hole everything and and decided I had to give it a go,” he said of Spieth’s left-hand low – cack-handed, in other words – grip. “I don’t know if I should tell you guys this but I also hit the short putts with my eyes shut. I have done that for about six years. I line it up and then close my eyes just before I take it away. I have to. I got to the stage I couldn’t take the putter away so I had to try something. It’s worked because I certainly make a lot more than I missed.”
Undoubtedly the pick of his three European Tour victories, O’Malley covered the last five holes on the King’s Course 23 years ago in an incredible seven-under-par – he went eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle – to claim the Scottish Open title by two shots from Montgomerie. One of two top-10s in the event, he also finished eighth in The Open at nearby Muirfield in 2002. “I love playing in Scotland,” he said, smiling. “I’ve some good results here, including the one at Gleneagles, which will always be nice. My only other visit here was for a social event – Ian Botham’s pro-am – a few years ago. That was a big drinking event so I don’t remember too much about it, but it is a lovely spot.”
Boosted by a top-10 finish in Germany in his last outing just over a month ago, Marks came home in three-under 33 and would have held the outright lead if he’d been able to convert an eight-foot birdie putt at the last. Nonetheless, it was a good day’s work for the 51-year-old Londoner, who was a regular parishioner at the European Tour Qualifying School but never managed to go the full distance in that marathon test.
“I played the Challenge Tour for four or five years, the Asian Tour and the Sunshine Tour as well as events in remote parts of Africa,” he said. “I suppose you could say I’ve spent a lifetime trying to make a breakthrough and, after 30 years, that’s what I’m still trying to do.”
While Manson, who was born St Andrews but is now an Austrian citizen, achieved that feat in the Swiss Seniors Open earlier in the season, starts have been few and far between for McAllister on the over-50s circuit this year due to his ranking. In fact, he needed an invitation to get into this field.
“I’ve been playing on the Tartan Tour to keep myself competitive and it is good testing yourself against a lot of the young lads,” said the Paisley man, a one-time Archerfield Links member but now flying the flag for the neighbouring Renaissance Club.