IT WAS somehow fitting that Peter Uihlein’s two-shot lead going into the final round of the Alfred Dunhill Links was created on the back of a holed 47-yard wedge on the 18th on the Old Course, a shot that was slam-dunked straight in the hole and one that typified the day, and the whole week, in so many ways.
In the dead-calm conditions, St Andrews was torn apart. For many, it was reduced to the ranks of the world’s most famous pitch and putt course. Quite frankly, any professional who shot north of 68 here yesterday should have left town with a bag over their head.
How easy was it? Well, Paul Casey shot 62 and only gained three shots on Uihlein who followed up his 60 at Kingsbarns on Friday with a 65 at St Andrews. David Howell also shot 63 but so plentiful were his birdies that he lost count and thought he’d shot 64. His caddie put him straight. It’s a common problem, eh? Miscounting your birdies.
Martin Kaymer and Scotland’s Chris Doak, right, also shot 63 and there is a battalion of players within four shots of Uihlein. The likeable American was playing the first competitive round of his life at the Old Course and called it an awesome experience. “I think it’s the best course I have ever played,” he said. “It was fun to play. We got lucky with the weather and with the wind not blowing, but it was a joy.” That pitch on 18 was some way to follow up on his 59 on Friday. It was also the loudest roar of the day, not surprisingly.
Hard though it is to believe, Doak, who hails from a spot on the map that is a tad closer to St Andrews than Uihlein’s home place – Greenock to be exact – was also having his first competitive round at the Old Course – and only his second round here ever following practice on Monday. “The 59 nearly happened on Friday,” he said, of Uihlein’s experience at Kingsbarns. “And it could happen here. I could have done it.”
How had he managed to get this far into his golfing life without having played the Old Course? “I just kind of drove by it,” he said, in that deadpan way of his. The Greenock man was so chilled in the aftermath. “I’m chuffed,” he said. “I was trying like a bear to get to 10-under [for the round], but it was good. I enjoyed it out there. Yeah, I’m a Scotsman who doesn’t like football and who has only played St Andrews once.” A bit of a rarity, Doak. He’s on 16-under and four off the lead. Whatever happens today, this is a vast improvement on some of the ropey performances Doak has put in of late.
“There’s always something that’s not right,” he said of his game over the course of the year, a run of ugly results that belies a natural talent. “Whether it’s the short game or putting, there’s been something that’s been off, but it’s all clicking in now. It’s actually great to be back to a situation where you know how the ball is going to react. It’s good to be home.”
The one round that stood out above all others was Shane Lowry’s, not at St Andrews but at the immeasurably more challenging Carnoustie. The Irishman shot 64 – including an eagle on 17 when he holed his 5-iron approach from 220 yards on the par-4 – and it would have been 63 had he had not faltered on the final hole and taken bogey. Lowry is right there, just two shots back on 18-under along with a posse of others. The final cavalry charge will take place at St Andrews today, where the wind is supposed to get up a little. You would hope it would get up a lot.
Ernie Els was another who made a big move on the Old Course, shooting 64 and looking happier with his game than he has for quite a while.
Since winning the BMW in June, Els has been out of sorts and made no attempt to hide it. Part of it has had to do with tiredness, he said. He’s over-extended. Over-golfed. And it’s something he intends to address next year.
“Since the Scottish Open, I’ve played almost every week,” he said. “I’ve got sponsors stuff that I have had to do and then the FedEx thing came along and now the European Tour has got their own Race to Dubai and they want you to play in all those events. It’s getting a little tricky, especially with a family living in the US. I’m going to have to start making decisions soon.” Els admitted to feeling weary. “Playing week-to-week and kind of going brain-dead,” he said. “You don’t know exactly what you are playing for. I was in a bit of a rut there. So to come here and play with my dad (Neels) at these beautiful links courses makes a change and that’s what I needed.”
Change being the operative word as far as the Old Course is concerned. Phase two of the alterations will begin soon.
What did Els make of phase one? “Yeah, it’s not too dramatic. In many ways it’s a little easier almost, on some holes. Whether it’s right or wrong, I don’t know. The changes are being made and you can have that argument if it’s the right thing to do or not, but it’s been made and, really, [the changes] fit the course.”
Why change something that does not need to be changed, though? “It will take a while for it to really blend in and look like all the other greens. But I’ve seen some changes made on links courses, at Birkdale and a lot of other links courses we play, and some of them I don’t agree with because they go away from what’s there, the flow of the place. I think they have done quite a good job here.”
The South African is in that group on 18-under, just two shots behind Uihlein. His father was 70 this year and they’ve been playing in this tournament for many years and have never won.
“I feel I need to get my name on that trophy,” he said.
Many others on a packed leaderboard will feel the same.