On A day when the formbook proved irrelevant – none of the five players sharing the lead is sitting inside the all-important top 110 in the Race to Dubai – local lad George Murray found inspiration once again from playing in the Dunhill Links Championship.
Two years ago, Murray arrived at this event sitting 183rd on the European Tour money-list, jumped to 87th after picking up £175,000 for finishing third behind Michael Hoey, then banked another £97,000 as a reward for claiming second spot in the Alfred Dunhill Championship in South Africa.
The card he secured thanks to that profitable seven-week spree was lost at the end of last season, however, leaving the 30-year-old from Anstruther back on the Challenge Tour and, in the case of this particular event, in a sweat as he waited to find out if he would secure one of the coveted sponsor’s invitations.
“I’d reached the stage where I thought I wasn’t going to get in,” admitted Murray after signing for seven-under-par 65 at St Andrews – his best effort on the Old Course – to sit just a shot behind the five joint-leaders: English trio Oliver Wilson, Tom Lewis and Richard McEvoy, Frenchman Alexandre Kaleka and Mark Tullo from Chile. “I was in Kazakhstan [where he had missed the cut in the biggest event on the Challenge Tour schedule] when I found out on Sunday that I’d got in and I have Alan Hogg, the chief executive at Kingsbarns, to thank as he got in touch with [tournament director] Peter German to push my case.”
Determined to make the most of his chance, Murray, who started at the tenth, covered his front nine in just one-under before transforming his day with a burst of six birdies in seven holes from the first, including a “monster from around 40 feet” at the sixth as a decision to putt cack-handed for the first time in a main Tour event paid dividends.
“It was a nice day’s work,” admitted one of the game’s most likeable characters and a generous sort, to boot. Following his heroic effort two years ago, he picked up the bar bill at a bash back at Anstruther Golf Club. “It’s something you’ve got to do on a day like that when your pals and people you know are there supporting you,” said the former Scottish Amateur champion, who is keen to get back on the main circuit as quickly as he possibly can but, lying 57th in the rankings, needs a strong finish to the second-tier campaign.
“I hope there’s still some there,” joked the Fifer when asked if he still had money in the bank from his efforts two years ago. “But you would certainly run out of money pretty quickly if you were stuck on the Challenge Tour for too long. My season has been average at best. I’ve struggled off the tee and my putting has been poor. The results show that and there’s no point trying to sugar-coat it by saying differently.”
If every event was played in the East Neuk of Fife, Murray would be nearer the top of the world rankings than languishing in 766th spot.
“I think the reason I seem to do well in this event is that I get to stay in my own bed and go home to my own cooking – even though it’s not that great,” he remarked.
“However, Marc Warren used this event two years ago to turn his career around and you just need to look at Henrik Stenson to see how quick things can change in this game. Two years ago I don’t think he even had a category and was getting into events through his career earnings. Yet for the last three months he’s probably been the best player in the world. Is it one good round that can help make a difference like that? I certainly hope so.”
On a bright but breezy day at all three venues, Challenge Tour graduates Tullo, lying 114th on the money-list, and 126th-placed Kaleka both produced flawless eight-birdie efforts on the Old Course, where McEvoy, another man fighting to retain his playing rights in 171st spot, signed for an eagle and eight birdies.
Like them, Lewis, sitting 155th on the money-list, needs a good week as the exemption from his Portugal Masters win just under two years ago runs out at the end of the season. His promising start – he did the same in the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles a few weeks ago but had to settle for joint-17th – came at Kingsbarns, where Wilson also showed a glimpse of the form that took him into the 2008 Ryder Cup team, play in two winning Seve Trophy teams and finish seventh on the Order of Merit in 2009.
“I’m playing a lot better,” said 33-year-old Wilson, from Mansfield, a statement backed up by his second-place finish in a recent Challenge Tour event in Northern Ireland. “For the first time in probably over a year, I have some control over my shots and am able to trust my swing under pressure.”
Pride of place on day one at Carnoustie went to Welshman Jamie Donaldson, whose seven-under-par 65 was two shots better than anyone else managed there on a day when Nick Dougherty, the 2007 winner but now outside the top 800 in the world rankings, ran up an eight-over-par 12 at the 18th. He put four shots out of bounds and is seven shots adrift in last after signing for an 86.