The Open: Laird well placed to join Scottish greats

Martin Laird cut a confident figure as he played his way up the 18th yesterday. Picture: Jane Barlow
Martin Laird cut a confident figure as he played his way up the 18th yesterday. Picture: Jane Barlow
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NOT since 2001, when Colin Montgomerie led by one at Royal Lytham, has the Saltire occupied such a lofty position at halfway in the Open Championship.

It’s sitting beside the name of Martin Laird, just two off the lead after the 30-year-old delivered further confirmation he’s feeling comfortable playing links golf again since heading off to America and taking the aerial route to become a three-times PGA Tour winner.

Three missed cuts in a row in the R&A’s flagship event after making his debut at Turnberry in 2009 told their own story.

Even when Laird ended that disappointing run at Lytham 12 months ago, he found himself in the demoralising position of heading out on his own in the first group on the last day, having tumbled down the leaderboard following a damaging 82 in the third round.

After slipping out of the top 30 on the US money-list at the end of last season, he’d been made to sweat over securing a seat at this particular golfing table for a fifth time, missing out in the US International Final Qualifier in Texas in May then failing to secure one of five exemptions up for grabs through the FedEx Cup standings after the Greenbrier Classic just under a fortnight ago.

The door only opened, in fact, when the R&A had to dip into the world rankings to come up with an additional eight players to complete the 156-strong line-up this week, meaning Laird, now living in Charlotte, North Carolina, after moving across America from Arizona to be closer to the main airport hubs, had the double date he cherishes on a rare competitive foray across the Atlantic.

Last week’s Scottish Open at Castle Stuart proved the perfect preparation for here.

Bouncy conditions are not supposed to be conducive to a bomber like him. Allied to power, though, creativity is also clearly part of Laird’s armoury. A closing 68 – the lowest of the day in the Highlands – secured a tie for fifth. He’s a man playing with confidence.

Yesterday, on the back of an opening 70, he “struggled” at the start, when a three-putt bogey from 20 feet at the second was the result of him being caught out by the greenspeeds being a lot slower than the previous afternoon after the surfaces had been hand-watered on Thursday night.

“It wasn’t like a foot slower; it was two or three feet slower,” said Laird after adding a 71 to sit on one-under for the championship. “But I think they had to do that otherwise by this afternoon they’d be unplayable.”

Still one-over for the day after eight, the world No 49 – he only broke back into the top 50 at the start of the week after slipping to 117th before winning the Texas Open in April – transformed his round with a blistering burst of four successive birdies from the eighth, which went down as 4-3-3-3 on the card.

At three-under for the tournament, the former Scottish Youths champion had climbed to third on the leaderboard around mid-morning but then dropped shots at the 14th and 17th as the wind swinging round from west to east turned the closing stretch into a tricky test.

Having found a “horrible spot” – it was plugged in the lip of a bunker – following a pulled drive at the penultimate hole, Laird holed from six feet for his 6. Bunkered again off the tee at the last – the same trap snared him for the second day running – his long putter saved the day once more, this time from around 15 feet.

“Overall, I didn’t really play that well today so shooting even par shows my game is in a good spot,” he said.

“I hit an awful 2-iron at the third and it maybe rattled me a bit as I really didn’t hit a good shot until the eighth, when I kind of got my temp back. I then had a nice little hot stretch in the middle there, hitting it close for all four of my birdies, and held it together coming in.

“It was like last week on the Friday (at Castle Stuart) when I didn’t play very well (in carding a 69) and hopefully this week is the same. Hopefully that’s my bad striking round out of the way. If that’s the case, then I’ll be in good shape over the weekend.”

Twelve years ago, even though the event was being played in Lancashire, Montgomerie was cheered vociferously on to every tee and green as the crowd tried to fuel his bid to finally land a major (he eventually finished in a tie for 13th behind David Duval after signing off with 73 and 72).

Asked if he felt the weight of a home support on his shoulders as he tried to become Scotland’s first Claret Jug winner since Paul Lawrie at Carnoustie 14 years ago might be a hindrance over the next two days, Laird added: “I think it will help me more than hurt me. I have probably have higher expectations for myself than anyone in the crowd so it’s not something I’m worried about.

“You can only look at it as something that can help you. They can pull you along.

“Even as I was struggling at the start today, you could hear people shouting ‘come on!’ and giving you support. That’s only a good thing.”

Can Laird join the greats of Scottish golf this weekend? It’s a tall order, but he has already improved on what had previously been a dismal US Open record by finishing just outside the top 20 at Merion last month.

You also don’t win events like Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Invitational and the Texas Open, closing with a 63 to hold off Rory McIlroy in one of his rare decent displays this season, without having a seriously good golf game.

His biggest challenge this weekend could yet be those fiery links conditions which had become alien to him, but, the “Laird of Muirfield” certainly has a ring to it.