Locals to the fore in Scottish Open qualifier

Gullane assistant professional Keir McNicoll walks off the North Berwick course en route to a wedding after carding an opening round 68. Picture: Getty

Gullane assistant professional Keir McNicoll walks off the North Berwick course en route to a wedding after carding an opening round 68. Picture: Getty

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IF THIS was Alex Salmond’s idea, then he deserves a pat on the back. After all, apart from a weather delay – it shocked the locals as that happens once in a blue moon on the East Lothian coast – the first day of the new Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open qualifier at North Berwick couldn’t have gone any better.

Its purpose is to create fairytales. The local amateur, for instance, upstaging the more experienced professionals to secure a spot in one of the European Tour’s biggest events on his own doorstep. Step forward Calum Hill, who is halfway towards writing a memorable opening chapter for the £50,000 tournament.

The 19-year-old, who is a member of Tantallon and lives the length of a par 5 from the host club, is on course to secure one of the five spots up for grabs in the £3.25 million main event starting at nearby Gullane on Thursday. He thrilled those locals in the opening round of this 36-hole event with a seven-under-par 64 to share the lead with West Linton professional Gareth Wright.

It wasn’t the teenager’s lowest score on the historic West Links – he once shot 63 in a bounce game – but to produce such an excellent effort in the heat of battle was outstanding. Indeed, it was just one shot outside the course record, held jointly by former Masters champion Trevor Immelman and Irishman Colm Moriarty from Open Championship qualifying in 2002.

Hill’s card contained eight birdies, the last of which was witnessed by a large crowd that had followed the local hero over the final few holes. “I enjoyed it when the crowd started to swell,” said the former Tantallon junior champion, who is at the University of Louisiana Monroe and won his first event on the US college circuit earlier in the year. “It was nice to get a cheer when I holed a 15-foot birdie putt at the last.”

North Berwick is a happy hunting ground for Wright, who qualified for the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield on the same course. “Something like that gives you good memories and it’s a course that really suits my eye,” said the Edinburgh-based Welshman after a flawless opening effort. “It could have been a ridiculous score,” he added, “because I missed from three feet for an eagle at the eighth and another couple for birdies from inside six feet.”

It’s going to be some shoot-out over the final 18 holes, for which the leaders are out last. Chasing the pacesetters, a shot adrift, are Jamie McLeary (Marriott Dalmahoy), Ross Dixon (Renaissance Club) and Greig Hutcheon (Paul Lawrie Golf Centre). McLeary is a man on a mission, having missed out by a shot in the aforementioned Open qualifier here two years ago. He’s also still hurting after a poor putting display cost him in that same event in Ayrshire on Tuesday. “If I had putted like that at Gailes this week I’d have made the Open easily,” he said.

Hutcheon, the Tartan Tour No.1, wasn’t at the races until he eagled the 11th. He then picked up four birdies over the closing stretch. In contrast, Dixon did his good work going out, reaching the turn in five-under 31.

“I’m not thinking about the Scottish Open at the moment, just playing golf and sticking to my game plan,” said the 29-year-old teaching professional from Troon who now lives in Edinburgh. “But no doubt that might change overnight.”

Others still in with a chance at the halfway stage include Fifer George Murray (66), 2005 Open Silver Medal winner Lloyd Saltman and brother Elliot (both 67) and Gullane assistant Keir McNicoll, who is in a posse of players on 68.

Out in the first group with host club professional Martyn Huish, McNicoll had no sooner signed for a three-under effort than he was looking resplendent in a Hunting McNicoll tartan kilt. “An old school friend is getting married today near Perth,” he explained. “I’ve missed the ceremony due to the weather delay, which is a pity, but at least I’ll be at the reception,” said the Carnoustie man. “I’ll be taking it easy, though, as I’m driving back tonight.”

He’d reached the sixth hole when a deluge left the course flooded after just an hour’s play and forced a suspension that lasted two and a quarter hours. “It took a little time to get back into my rhythm again but I putted really well today,” said Nicoll. Unfortunately, it was a day to forget for his boss, Alasdair Good. His 80 included a penalty for playing the wrong ball.

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