On-form David Drysdale led the way as Scottish golfers enjoyed easily their best day of the 2017 European Tour season in the opening round of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Portstewart.
On a day when American Daniel Im and Benjamin Hebert of France took advantage of benign conditions to set the pace with eight-under-par 64s, the seven Scots in the field were a combined 28-under.
Maintaining the form that put him in contention in last week’s French Open before eventually finishing in a tie for 16th, Drysdale, pictured, ignited his round with an eagle-3 at the seventh then picked up four birdies in five holes in a burst on the back nine.
His 66 left him sitting in a tie for sixth spot, just ahead of Stephen Gallacher and Duncan Stewart after they also got off to promising starts in the £5.5 million Rolex Series event in County Derry.
Gallacher bounced back from a bogey at the first to make six birdies, including four in five holes on the front nine, as he signed for his best score of the year, one matched by Stewart as he garnered eight birdies.
Adding to a successful morning for the Scottish contingent, Richie Ramsay had a 68 while Marc Warren and Scott Jamieson also broke par with rounds of 69 and 70 respectively before Paul Lawrie matched Warren’s score in the afternoon.
The encouraging effort came less than a week after Drysdale had been the only player out of seven Scots in the field to make the cut in the French Open at Le Golf National in Paris and also boosted hopes of a bigger representation than five in the Open Championship in a fortnight’s time.
Three spots at Royal Birkdale are up for grabs in the Irish event to the leading non-exempt players, provided they finish in the top 10, with all the Scots in the field except Lawrie, the 1999 champion, still trying to get into the season’s third major.
Rory McIlroy, who will be one of the favourites for that event, faces a fight to make the cut at Portstewart after the tournament host and defending champion could only manage a level-par 72 on a day when 105 of the 156-strong field broke par.
Among those to outscore the world No 3 were his playing partners, Spaniard Jon Rahm and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, as they produced the fireworks a huge crowd were hoping would come from McIlroy with rounds of 65 and 67 respectively.
“Selflessly, it’s great to see Jon and Hideki up there, but selfishly I want to be alongside them and it felt like I was going backwards just shooting level par,” said McIlroy. “I’m pretty frustrated because it felt like the course was there to shoot a really low score. I could not get anything going and hopefully I can get out there tomorrow morning and make some birdies.”
Rahm, who has risen to world No 11 on the back of an incredible start to his professional career, made an eagle and six birdies in just his second regular European Tour event. “To win here would be amazing,” admitted the 22-year-old. “Rory’s event, the Irish Open... to win this early would be unbelievable.”
Having set course records with two flawless efforts, Im and Hebert lead by a shot from Rahm as well as English duo Oliver Fisher and Matthew Southgate, with Drysdale sitting alongside Welshman and 2014 Ryder Cup hero Jamie Donaldson, who won this event at nearby Royal Portrush in 2012, and another Englishman, Matt Fitzpatrick.
Elsewhere, Blairgowrie’s Bradley Neil opened with a six-under-par 66 to sit in a share of sixth, two shots behind South African Rourke Van Der Spuy, after the opening round of the Prague Golf Challenge. The former Amateur champion bounced back from an early bogey to card seven birdies, including four on the trot, at Prague City Golf.
In the Ladies European Tour Thailand Championship, it was a struggle for five Scots, with Michelle Thomson faring best with a three-over-par 75 as home player Chonlada Chayaun and Anna Mendez of Mexico set the pace with matching 68s at Phoenix Gold Golf & Country Club.