Bjorn again in the reckoning

EXACTLY two years ago, Thomas Bjorn had already made his exit from the Johnnie Walker Championship. Rounds of 82 and 76 on the PGA Centenary Course saw to that. In a field of 156, the Dane finished 151st in Perthshire.

A few weeks later, after firing a much-improved 64 at Kingsbarns to lead the Dunhill Links Championship, Bjorn came up with an explanation. For starters, he’d suffered a major health scare earlier in the year. Bouts of dizziness and fatigue had become so bad that he was sent for a brain scan.

The pressures of being chairman of the players’ committee on the European Tour were also taking their toll. A 25 per cent cut in prize money for both the Race to Dubai and season-ending Dubai World Championship had just been announced. Bjorn was worried about other events being hit due to the financial climate at the time.

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The “good feeling” as he walked off Kingsbarns didn’t last for long. He eventually finished outside the top 40 in the pro-am event. Slowly but surely, however, the dark clouds that were hanging over him have cleared. In short, he’s enjoying golf again.

Yesterday, as the £1.4 million event at Gleneagles got back on schedule following a delay due to fog on the opening morning, the 40-year-old followed a first-round 68 with a 69. At the halfway stage, he’s just a shot behind the leader, Spaniard Ignacio Garrido, who came in with his matching 69 late in the day for an eight-under total of 136.

The leaderboard is crowded. Overnight pacesetter Mark Foster (71) is also on seven-under, as are fellow Englishman Kenneth Ferrie (69), Italian Lorenzo Gagli (68) and Irishman Peter Lawrie (69). Bjorn, though, looks to be the dangerman in the battle for a £233,330 first prize.

The 40-year-old won in Qatar at the start of this year. He finished fourth in the Open Championship at Royal St George’s. “I got a lot of confidence from it [The Open], but then went to America, where you have to hit the ball straight up in the air and found it impossible,” he admitted.

An able vice-captain to both Bernhard Langer and Colin Montgomerie in the Ryder Cup, he has been tipped as a future European captain, perhaps here in 2014. “If asked, I would say ‘yes’. But I want to play golf at the moment. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines in a buggy,” declared Bjorn.

Ferrie lost to Andrew McArthur in a marathon play-off at the inaugural Paul Lawrie Invitational at Deeside earlier this year. On his bag this week is another Scot, Dave Renwick, who has “won” five majors over the years. “Getting into contention with me is nothing compared to what he’s done in his career,” noted Ferrie.

Gagli, a 25-year-old from Florence, graduated from the Challenge Tour last season. Third in the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart in June, he came into this event lying 52nd in the Race to Dubai. A good weekend and he’ll be a threat to Scott Jamieson in the battle to be Rookie of the Year.

While Jamieson, after rounds of 77 and 74, made an early exit here, ten Scots are still standing, led by 2007 winner Marc Warren on five-under. Joining him in the final two rounds are amateur James Byrne, Richie Ramsay and Alastair Forsyth (all three-under), Stephen Gallacher (two-under), tournament chairman Colin Montgomerie, Chris Doak and Gary Orr (one-under), Paul Lawrie and Paul McKechnie (level-par).

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Warren was tied for eighth heading into the final round 12 months ago before imploding with an 84. Three off the lead after rounds of 70 and 69, he’s back in contention again and is hoping to use this event and next week’s Omega European Masters in Switzerland to regain the card he lost at the end of last year.

Byrne is one of the two Scots named in the Great Britain & Ireland side for the Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen in a fortnight’s time. Due to the fog delay on Thursday, he played 25 holes yesterday and signed for 70 and 71. He looks at home, even though this is his first European Tour event.

“This is a good chance to measure myself against what I’m going to be facing in the year ahead,” said the 22-year-old from Banchory. “To make the cut here comfortably while leaving a few shots out there in the second round is encouraging, so I feel like I can start playing better and push on.”

Gallacher, who ran up a quadruple-bogey 8 at the eighth in the first round, leapt up the leaderboard on the back of a 68 – one of the best rounds of the day. He’s using ten-year-old son Jack’s putter this week and wore a pink sweater yesterday to match the colour of its grip.

Montgomerie doesn’t do pink. But he’s lost 20lbs recently, mainly due to swapping Diet Coke, his favourite tipple, for water. “I want to lose a lot more – I’ve got to because I’m finding myself tired,” he said after a second-round 73. “Mentally tired is one thing, but physically is up to me.”