Have you ever wondered what that “fine line” is in professional golf? Pop up to Gleneagles today and you will probably be enlightened. Few events, after all, illustrate it better than the Scottish Professional Championship. Taking a conservative stab, the 100th staging of the Tartan Tour’s flagship event features six players who either could have been or should be performing at a higher level.
Take Paul O’Hara, for example. He won on the third-tier EPD Tour early in his professional career, having made that career move with a strong degree of confidence on the back of what he achieved in the amateur ranks. Yes, he suffered three defeats in Scottish Amateur finals in five years, but it was through playing above average golf that the Motherwell man set up those opportunities.
It was a pity that O’Hara had to essentially put his playing career on hold after effectively running out of money to fund his dream of following his older sibling, Steven, on to the European Tour. He showed guts in making that decision, though, and it still might not be too late for the 30-year-old to make up for lost time. Class is permanent, after all, and O’Hara has his hunger back. He may have gone down the PGA training route first and foremost to give himself something to fall back on. But the time it’s taken him to gain that qualification has also coincided with O’Hara showing that he’s not lost any of his ability to get the job done.
The P&H Championship, another of the Tartan Tour’s Order of Merit events, fell to him at The Renaissance Club in May. He then won the Scottish Young Professionals Championship – that title really does need to be looked at – for the third time in four years at West Lothian.
Now the M&H Logistics Scottish PGA Championship is in his sights. O’Hara, currently attached to North Lanarkshire Leisure and based at Lochview Golf Centre in Coatbridge, is tied for the lead with West Linton’s Gareth Wright heading into the final round on the King’s Course. As a former winner – at the same venue in 2014 – and also with a bit more experience, Wright is the slight favourite. He’s got the man at the forefront of a changing of the guard on the Scottish circuit to beat, though, if it comes down to a shoot-out between the pair in today’s final group.
“I’m a lot better now, definitely, than when I won on the EPD Tour [in Germany in 2010],” insisted O’Hara, who lost the first of his Scottish Amateur finals to George Murray at Gullane in 2004 before suffering the same fate at the hands of Kevin McAlpine at Nairn two years later then David Law at Royal Troon in 2009. “My all-round game has improved and, in particular, my iron play. When I look back on my amateur career, I think about some of the shots that I hit and just know that I wouldn’t hit them nowadays. Working with David Orr [the Eastwood professional] for the last year and half has definitely been good for me and I’ve got my confidence back as well.”
Victory today would seal a top-three finish for O’Hara in this season’s Tartan Tour Order of Merit. That would get him into next week’s PGA Play-Offs at Saunton in Devon, where places in events such as the BMW PGA Championship will be up for grabs. “I’d like to get the chance in some European Tour events, but I’ve never managed to qualify for any up to now,” said O’Hara.
“The last time I was at Wentworth, I was caddying for Steven, so that would certainly be something nice to look forward to next season.”
No matter who comes out on top today, Wright, who has enjoyed those sorts of opportunities in recent years and shown he’s another that, if the wind had blown in the opposite direction at different times in his career, could quite possibly have been on the European Tour by now, is confident that the Tartan Tour can continue to harden up aspiring playing professionals at the same time as allowing them to broaden their golfing knowledge. “There are a lot of guys that were good amateurs now taking the PGA route,” said the 34-year-old. “The Tartan Tour is a good place to ply your trade. There are a lot of good players, including former European Tour Rookies of the Year and guys who’ve played in majors, so you need to play to a decent standard to have a chance of winning.”
O’Hara and Wright signed for 66 and 68 respectively in the third round to set up that opportunity today, though Bathgate’s Louis Gaughan and Mearns Castle man Sam Binning, sitting two and four shots behind respectively, will be aiming to ensure the final circuit is more than a two-man shoot-out. Wright, of course, led by five after his opening 62, but is unperturbed that he’s since been reeled in. He had the “lurgy” yesterday, so was pleased to shoot three-under.
On this occasion, the masterclass was produced by Robert Arnott. At 53, he now feels like an “old man”. He’s also been “popping pills like you’ve never known” for a sore back and hip. He can still get it round, though, as we saw with a splendid 64. Helped by an eagle at the last, he was home in 30.