IN THE friendliest of battles, it was advantage Jamie Donaldson over Stephen Gallacher at the end of day one in their two-week fight to secure an automatic Ryder Cup spot.
The pair are not the only ones involved in that exciting tussle, of course, but it is no coincidence that organisers of the D+D Real Czech Masters have put them in the same group for the opening 36 holes in Prague.
They are the top two in the Ryder Cup standings in this week’s field – Donaldson, eighth, occupying one of the nine automatic spots in Paul McGinley’s team for Gleneagles, with Gallacher, in 11th, still a strong contender to play in the biennial event on home soil.
With the year-long qualifying race concluding on Sunday week at the end of the Italian Open, the pressure is on all the hopefuls, meaning cracks in temperament could easily be starting to appear. But, on the surface at least, Donaldson and Gallacher both still seem to be enjoying the challenge of trying to make their first Ryder Cup team.
They’re also very comfortable in each other’s company and, though both are just as determined to face the Americans in exactly five weeks’ time, sparks were never going to fly at Albatross Golf Resort yesterday and won’t today, either. It’s about trying to let their clubs do the talking in these final two events, with Donaldson, who has occupied one of those automatic berths since the turn of the year, getting off to a flying start in the penultimate one.
After play had been delayed for an hour by lightning, the Welshman opened with a six-under-par 66, finishing birdie-birdie and covering his last seven holes in four-under, to lead the £800,000 tournament by a shot from Swede Mikael Lundberg, with no less than ten players a further stroke back on a crowded leaderboard.
“It’s a good start and I played nicely all the way, really,” admitted Donaldson. “The course was playing tough early on as it was quite windy then died down, but that finish is pretty tough, so I’m happy with the result.
“I seemed to play tougher holes better than easy holes, but I’m happy with how I played. It’s very important to get those approach shots in close and give yourself a lot of chances and I did that, the score reflected that.
“I generally like playing in wind or rain but today it was windy in places and those par-3s play long out there so I was wearing my 3-iron out. But I’m in a good position and will be looking for more of the same tomorrow.”
Donaldson ignited his challenge to be at Gleneagles by finishing runner-up in both the Turkish Airlines Open and Nedbank Challenge towards the end of last year. He also finished second in the WGC-Cadillac Championship earlier this year, but has seen his automatic position come under threat for the first time in recent weeks.
“I know what I’ve got to do this week so it’s just a case of going out and doing it,” added the 38-year-old. “It’s another golf tournament where you’ve got to play as well as you can and contend to win the tournament. I’m in a position to do that now. I just need more of the same over the next three rounds.
“You can’t go too heavily into it (the Ryder Cup race), you have to go out there and it’s just one shot at a time like any other week. There are other things circling around this result but you have to get on with it and keep doing the same things you’ve been doing every week.”
Fighting “a bit of a cold”, Donaldson has a temporary caddie on his bag this week due to his regular looper, Scot Mick Donaghy, having committed to taking time off before his boss made a relatively late decision to add the event to his schedule.
The replacement, however, is bidding to make it back-to-back wins because Ken Herring is Marc Warren’s caddie and was at the Scot’s side when he claimed the Made in Denmark title in Aalborg last Sunday.
“Mick’s spending some time with his son at home, which is no problem,” insisted Donaldson. “Ken has stepped in for a week which is great because he’s a very good caddie and a top man like Mick. He’s doing a good job, so things aren’t much different.”
On a day when Craig Lee shot a 69 to sit as the leading Scot in joint-13th, Gallacher had little reason to be dissatisfied with his 70. After starting with a birdie, the 39-year-old missed a good opportunity for a second one at the ninth.
He then dropped his only shot of the round after being plugged in a greenside bunker at the 11th before bouncing back with two birdies, the pick of which was a great approach from 230 yards to around three feet at the 17th.
While not completely free of the back pain that forced his late withdrawal in Denmark last week, Paul Lawrie also signed for a 70, as did Duncan Stewart and Peter Whiteford to sit in joint-22nd alongside Gallacher.