Peter Whiteford carefully plotted his way around the Macdonald Spey Valley course to sit close to the first-round lead but reckons he will need to start using a driver he “got out of a museum” in his bid to become the third home winner in the SSE Scottish Hydro Challenge.
The 35-year-old Fifer only used his Callaway FT5 three times en route to a flawless five-under-par 66, preferring to err on caution by taking a 2-iron from the tee to cut down the risk of straying into the heather that flanks the fairways on the Aviemore course.
It was a safety-first strategy that nestled Whiteford into the top ten on a day when the pace in an event worth close to £200,000 was set by Tapio Pulkkanen after the 26-year-old Finn finished birdie-birdie for a 64 to edge ahead of a posse that includes Englishman Robert Coles, who lost in a play-off here 12 months ago.
However, Whiteford, who is attempting to emulate title triumphs in this event by Jamie McLeary and George Murray in 2009 and 2010 respectively, believes he will have to start trusting that big stick more to stay in the mix, especially if the wind picks up in the shadow of the Cairngorms.
“The driver, which is the best of a bad bunch, is killing me, but my irons are good and, if I can keep it in play, then I can compete,” said the Kirkcaldy man, who came close to winning on the European Tour in Korea in 2013 but is competing on the second-tier circuit for the second season in a row.
“I hit my 2-iron decent most of the time today, but whether I can keep using that will depend on the wind as you can’t be going into greens with a 5-iron when others are hitting wedge when you are trying to win a tournament.”
Whiteford, a likeable lad, reckons his pro-am partners here on Wednesday saw little to believe he could lift this title and add to three previous Challenge Tour triumphs. “I was awful – an embarrassment,” he said of his pre-event warm-up. Birdies at the fourth, fifth, 12th, 13th and 17th were more like it when it mattered most, though, and Whiteford is hoping a good performance on home soil can help secure a return to the top table in European golf. “I’m not ready to chuck in the towel yet,” he declared with gusto.
Murray, another personable chap, has admitted he is close to that brink after finding life tough back on the Challenge Tour, but the 33-year-old is hoping that a welcome return to form in the shape of a 67 was some light at the end of a dark tunnel. “I played really well today,” he reported after signing for seven birdies. “I’ve been struggling with my neck lately – it’s just old age I think – but some deep tissue massage from Shelley Wares, who is based at Drumoig, seems to be helping.”
On a delightful day in the Highlands – the forecast isn’t promising the same for today or tomorrow, unfortunately – Swede Anton Karlsson finished with a hole-in-one after twice coming close to achieving that feat earlier in the round. “It was pretty special,” said the 22-year-old of seeing a 6-iron disappear into the hole at the 196-yard tenth. “I almost made one on the 16th, too, tapping in for birdie, then on the fourth it looked like it was going in as well and I made another birdie. My playing partner said to me jokingly, ‘don’t worry, you’re going to make one today’, so it was pretty crazy that one ended up in the hole in the end.”
The ace earned him a 66, one less than compatriot Sebastian Soderberg, who played a practice round with the eventual champion, Dustin Johnson, in last week’s US Open.