Martin Dempster: Bright outlook for Stephen Gallacher and Martin Laird

There is good reason to feel optimistic about what lies ahead for Stephen Gallacher. Picture: Getty.
There is good reason to feel optimistic about what lies ahead for Stephen Gallacher. Picture: Getty.
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Scottish golf may not be churning out wins like Spain, which has seen rising star Jon Rahm and classy campaigner Sergio Garcia record notable title triumphs on the PGA Tour and European Tour on successive Sundays, or Japan, which has Hideki Matsuyama landing victory after victory these days. It was encouraging, nonetheless, to see two of our Saltire bearers, Stephen Gallacher and Martin Laird, figuring prominently in their latest respective outings because both players undoubtedly have the games to be delivering much-needed Scottish successes at the highest level in the sport.

It shows how time flies because it doesn’t seem long ago that Gallacher and Laird were our two top-ranked players. They joined forces twice, in fact, in the World Cup, tying for fourth behind US duo Matt Kuchar and Gary Woodland at Mission Hills in China in 2011 before finishing tenth as Australian pair Jason Day and Adam Scott delivered a home victory two years later at Royal Melbourne.

Laird got as high as 21st in the world rankings after landing the 2011 Arnold Palmer Invitational while Gallacher was a career-best 31st exactly two years ago. That Laird had dropped to 249th heading into his first event in 2016 and Gallacher had slipped to 445th after the Dunhill Links last October was quite a turnaround in fortunes.

In Gallacher’s case, what looked like a fall off the cliff following a Ryder Cup appearance at Gleneagles in 2014 coincided, of course, with a troublesome wrist injury that led to him having surgery just under a year ago. A lay-off that followed, coupled with the subsequent swing change he had to make after being told by his surgeon that his career could be under threat if he’d persisted with the method that had earned him a whole host of amateur honours before recording three European Tour triumphs, meant last season was virtually a write-off for the Lothians man.

Missed cuts in both Abu Dhabi and Qatar in his first two outings in 2017 perhaps suggest it’s still a case of work in progress with that new method. There were definite signs, though, of Gallacher edging back to his best, particularly in a flawless closing 66, as he chalked up a remarkable seventh top-ten finish in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at the weekend.

Watching the 42-year-old strike golf balls with such crispness remains one of the delights among Scottish golf correspondents, and, though still outside the top 300 in this world rankings, there’s good reason to feel optimistic about what lies ahead for Gallacher for the remainder of the season. It’s just a pity that a nonsensical top-ten finish regulation has deprived him of trying to strike again while his irons, in particular, are hot in the Maybank Championship in Malaysia this week and now won’t be back in action again until the Hero Indian Open in a month’s time.

As for Laird, he’d become our forgotten man on the PGA Tour due to Russell Knox’s meteoric rise on that circuit over the past 18 months or so, coupled with his own dip in form since landing the 2013 Valero Texas Open. Laird’s lull coincided with some swing changes, not to mention the arrival of two children, and he was talking this time last year about how “sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards”. It’s now a case of full steam ahead again for the 34-year-old Glaswegian.

For the second time in three years, he’d have left the Phoenix Open on Sunday feeling a tad disappointed not to have prevailed after either leading on his own or sitting close to the lead heading into the final round at TPC Scottsdale. But, with three top-ten finishes and five top-30s in six starts so far on the PGA Tour this season, it’s much more like the Laird we’d become used to seeing. Having clawed his way up to 115th in the world, he is one really good performance away from getting into the mix for the Masters, where, as things stand, only 18th-ranked Knox and former winner Sandy Lyle will be flying the Saltire in early April. Laird has also raised hopes that Knox might not be going solo, after all, in the WGC-Mexico Championship early next month.

Having played on the game’s biggest stages before, the goal for Gallacher and Laird is to get back. The pair are moving in the right direction again, which is encouraging. At a time when we’ve got no young blood at the very top level, Scottish golf needs players like Gallacher and Laird to be back where they belong. Both, in fact, could possibly still have their best years lying ahead, and that is an exciting prospect.