Teenage amateur from Ayrshire makes a big impression at Castle Stuart as he displays promising ability and admirable composure in esteemed company
IT DIDN’T take long out on the course for the inevitable question to be asked. “I wonder if we are seeing a star in the making,” whispered one gentleman in the small band of spectators as Jack McDonald prepared to play his second shot at the scenic 12th hole on the banks of the Inverness Firth.
The 19-year-old Ayrshireman had just hit a majestic 7-iron to six feet for a birdie-2 at the previous hole to move to three-under for his round and seven-under for the tournament, having chipped in at the last on Friday evening to make the cut in the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open.
It was the first time that an amateur had made it to the final two rounds in the event since Edoardo Molinari achieved the feat in 2006. The last Scot to do it was Barry Hume, who tied for 21st a decade ago, the one before him being Gordon Sherry, who was in dreamland after tying for fourth behind Australian Wayne Riley at Carnoustie in 1995.
Sherry cut his golfing teeth at Kilmarnock (Barassie). So did McDonald. Sherry went to Stirling University. McDonald is halfway through a maths degree there at the moment. Both had bags of ability at the same age. Sherry, however, is a perfect example of why it would be wrong for anyone to start making wild predictions about what the future can hold for McDonald.
On the back of his splendid performance in Angus, he found himself playing a practice round for the Open Championship at St Andrews the following week with Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. The experience became even more memorable when the young Scot had a hole-in-one.
Yet, for one reason or another – including an untimely bout of glandular fever – he was unable to live up to those two golfing greats tipping him for fame and fortune.
While the pair share many similaries, they definitely differ in terms of their frames. Whereas Sherry was always built like a brick you know what, McDonald looks as though a strong gust of wind would snap him in half. “He also looks as though he’s about 12,” observed legendary coach Bob Torrance yesterday. The teenager can certainly play, though. In 2009, he became the youngest winner of the Scottish Boys’ Stroke Play Championship – a title claimed by the likes of Stephen Gallacher, Scott Jamieson, Craig Lee and Lloyd Saltman. This year, he was crowned as the British Universities’ champion and reached the semi-finals of the Amateur Championship at Royal Troon.
His place in this week’s event was secured as the highest-ranked Scot (118th) in the World Amateur Golf Rankings. It’s his first taste of the professional scene and would have been good experience even if he’d found himself heading back down the A9 on Friday night.
However, with the adrenalin still flowing after that dramatic chip in from 20 feet at the 18th, he was off and running again yesterday with two opening birdies. He finished with one as well – after shaving the hole from 40 feet at the 16th then hitting the hole from 20 feet at the 17th – for a splendid 68 to find himself sitting alongside a three-time major winner, Ernie Els, on eight-under.
“I was struggling to get to sleep last night after the excitement on Friday night, but I managed to stay composed and I enjoyed it, especially with the crowds (including proud mum and dad, Linda and Andy) out there,” said McDonald, who takes a full swing as part of his pre-shot routine and also plays at a refreshing pace. “I won’t get penalised for slow play,” he commented on that.
Gregor Howie, the professional at West Kilbride, looks after McDonald’s swing. His mentor, though, is Dean Robertson, the former Italian Open champion who is head performance coach at Stirling University these days after hanging up his own clubs. He used his contact book to fix up a practice round for his man earlier this week with Francesco Molinari and Matteo Manassero. The former Scottish Amateur champion, who made the top 30 in this event 11 years ago, is on caddying duties in the Highlands and doing a fine job, too.
He has high hopes for McDonald and believes this week will do him a power of good. “To make the cut and now enjoy the weekend will strengthen that belief he has in himself,” said Robertson. “He’s only a wee lad and has got a lot of building up to do. He knows that, he goes into the physio wagon here and sees Luke Donald working hard on these aspects. Look at Andy Murray, he was pretty puny when he started off, now he’s like an animal.”
McDonald could well be that star in the making, but playing in these events when you’re doing it for a living is a different ball game. While the Scot looked carefree yesterday, playing partner Danny Denison was uptight.
It’s why the Englishman reacted to missing a short par putt at the 11th by angrily tossing his ball into the Inverness Firth.