Calum Hill, one of two Scots in contention at the halfway stage in the Betfred British Masters, feared all his hard work during lockdown had gone down the drain before teeing off at Close House near Newcastle.
The 25-year-old Fifer has produced two polished rounds to have the leader, Italian Renato Paratore, in his sights heading into the final two rounds in an event marking the European Tour’s full return after a four-month shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Hill, who is in his first full season on the top tour after winning three times on the Challenge Tour, admitted he was pleasantly surprised with opening efforts of 67 and 66 at the Northumberland venue following two very disappointing practice rounds earlier in the week.
“Coming in after so much practice, I said ‘what’s going on, I’m completely lost’,” he admitted, laughing. “Then it just came back again. It really shouldn’t have gone anyway. I’d put so much work into the last two or three months it should be ingrained in muscle memory, so it clearly wasn’t far away.”
Hill has been working with Davy Burns, the Kingsfield-based swing guru who helped Bob MacIntyre become the European Tour Rookie of the Year last season, and admitted he now has a much better understanding of his swing when things are not firing on all cylinders.
“Just one little tweak,” he added of what had been required to help him card 12 birdies in the opening 36 holes. “I wasn’t getting my weight back through the left side, I was cheating my backside. It was a case of just making sure I was fully loaded. I was a little quick and basically needed to complete my backswing.”
The Gleneagles-attached player, who won two mini-tour events in the US as he stayed with his girlfriend, Miranda, in Arizona during the early part of lockdown, was three under for his second round before rolling in a monster for birdie at the par-4 16th before backing that up at the next with a nice seven-footer for the last of six birdies on the day.
“Solid again, with a good finish,” he said after joining compatriot David Law on nine under, two shots behind Paratore. “I hit it really well the whole way round and made a couple of good putts coming in which was nice. 16 was miles, about 50 feet, that was random, but I’d horseshoed hard twice earlier in the day, so it just gave me one back.”
Hill landed two Challenge Tour victories last year to earn his place at the European golf’s top table. He’d struggled to find his feet before lockdown, but has both a game and mentality that suggests he can also taste success at this level.
“It’s pleasing the ball-striking’s come back together,” he said. “I’m hitting it exactly where I want it to. The misses have been minimal and the difference between good and bad shots was quite close, so it’s made it a lot easier and stress-free. I’ll just keep ploughing away and if I keep doing what I’m doing I should be fine. I never get too flustered, sometimes I can get a little cross, but it doesn’t impact my game and to the extent it would impact on me playing. Mentally, I’m pretty strong.”
It’s a family affair for Hill these days as his younger brother, Ian, is on the bag this season. “It’s work in progress and it’ll take time to click,” he said of that on-course partnership. “I said to him whenever I can hand you over to someone else and they say “you’re a good caddie” we’ll know we’ve made it. It’s easy on the good days, and it’s definitely coming along.”
Paratore, who claimed his maiden tour title at the age of 20 in the 2017 Nordea Masters, moved into the lead after adding a 66 to his opening 65. It felt really good today,” said the 23-year-old, who is one of the fastest players on the circuit. “I played really solid, especially the short game. I saved some shots when I needed it, so I’m very happy my game.”
South African Justin Harding and Englishman Dale Whitnell shot 63 and 64 respectively to sit one behind. Whitnell, a 31-year-old from Essex, played on the 2009 Walker Cup team alongside Tommy Fleetwood, but has struggled in the paid ranks. “Two and a half years ago I went and got a job, I was a courier driver, just to finance my year playing on the mini tours,” he said. “Luckily I won the Portugal Pro Tour Grand Final, that got me five starts on the Challenge Tour, and that sort of snowballed to here where we are today.”
In addition to Hill and Law, Scott Jamieson (three-under), Richie Ramsay (two under) and Grant Forrest (one under) also progressed to the final two rounds.
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