It is at events such as the Challenge Tour Grand Final that you are reminded that the Royal & Ancient game has a knack of bringing people back down to earth pretty quickly.
Take fellow Fifers George Murray and Peter Whiteford, for example. It doesn’t seem that long ago that they were flying high after both came close to landing big breakthrough wins on the European Tour.
Anstruther’s Murray finished joint third, with Rory McIlroy one of those ahead of him, in the 2011 Dunhill Links at St Andrews, while Kirkcaldy-based Whiteford was pipped in a play-off for the Ballantine’s Championship in Korea in 2013.
Murray, alas, lost his main Tour card after two years at the end of that season and was joined on the second-tier circuit by Whiteford 12 months later as he was forced to take a step back after locking horns with the big boys for five campaigns in a row and six out of seven.
Neither, unfortunately, has been able to set the heather on fire on the Challenge Tour, hence they came into the season-ending event in Oman this week needing to land a £45,000 top prize to get into the card-winning top 15 on the money list.
Murray made the better start of the two at the Greg Norman-designed Almouj Golf in Muscat, carding a two-under-par 70 to sit three ahead of Whiteford, but they’re both facing a task as big as the mountains which provide a stunning backdrop to the country’s capital.
“I didn’t play that well, to be honest,” admitted Murray, 32, who made his score with a burst of three straight birdies from the 12th. “The difference today was that I putted well, which has been my Achilles’ heel all year.”
The 2004 Scottish Amateur champion added: “My long game has been better than it has ever been. It’s been my chipping and putting that I’ve been struggling with, which is strange for me. I’ve got a slim chance this week and, if I then find myself at Tour School, hopefully I can play solid for the six rounds there.”
Like Murray, Whiteford is as likeable as they come. The pair are also in the Freddie Couples’ league when it comes to being laid back and honest, too. “Pathetic” was Whiteford’s summing up of his opening 73, having felt it should have been a lot better on a course playing “easy” due to the previous afternoon’s wind having dropped away completely.
The 35-year-old also didn’t pull any punches as he reflected on his season, the highlight of which was finishing fourth in the Made in Denmark event.
“I’ve played awful this year,” added Whiteford. “In fact, I’ve felt embarrassed to be out on the golf course at times. I’m trying to make some changes to my swing with my brother, Stewart, and it’s a work in progress at the moment. I flew one straight into the ocean at the 12th today and that showed there are still some bad ones. But I’m just going to have to put in the graft ahead of the Tour School.”
In his bid to avoid paying a visit there next month, Scott Henry made a timely return to form to open with a three-under 69, leaving the 28-year-old sitting joint sixth, three behind Dane Joachim B Hansen, who, ominously, has the money list leader, Portugal’s Ricardo Gouveia, breathing down his neck after a flawless opening effort.
“That was definitely a lot better than I have been playing,” declared Henry.
He had slipped outside the top 15 after a poor run of form coming into this event but was up six spots to 14th in the projected standings.
The 28-year-old’s card contained a burst of three straight birdies from the second then two back-to-back at the 12th and 13th, where he was unlucky not to get a hole in one as his ball went into the cup on the second bounce but jumped out again.
Like most others in the searing heat, Henry found sweaty hands a problem.
“The grip almost slipped out of my hands when I was hitting my tee shot at the 18th and I chunked it,” he revealed after retrieving the situation with a majestic third from a greenside bunker to save par with the Oman Sea glittering a few feet away.
Playing in the same group, it was a tough opening day for Andrew McArthur and Jamie McLeary as they signed for 75 and 78 respectively.
While reluctant to blame an ankle injury, McArthur could only muster one birdie. McLeary, meanwhile, dropped five shots at the end as he finished seven-six to sit last in the 45-man field.
As a result, both slipped a spot – to 11th and 12th respectively – on the projected standings but, with no cut, have three rounds to at least cement those positions.