“If only every golf tournament could be played here,” said Kelly, a smile appearing above his grizzly beard, as he reflected on opening his bid for a fourth title triumph in the tournament at the Perthshire resort with a stunning eight-under-par 62 that was illuminated by a brace of eagles.
The effort, which was admired by every other player in the 66-strong field after it had been posted in the opening group of the day, beat Kelly’s equally brilliant opening salvo 12 months ago by a shot. He went on to win by six strokes on that occasion and is already four clear of the field this time around.
There’s a long way to go, but the 41-year-old is off to a flyer in that attempt to become just the sixth player after John Panton, Eric Brown, Bernard Gallacher, Sam Torrance and Ross Drummond to win this event four times or more.
“I’ll certainly be trying, but I already feel I am in good company with three wins and there are plenty of good players in this field who will be trying to catch me over the next four days,” said Kelly, who is attached to St Andrews-based Scotland for Golf.
Newmachar’s Greg McBain fared best of the rest with a 66, a shot better than Neil Fenwick (Dunbar), Paul McKechnie (Braid Hills Golf Centre), Chris Currie (Erskine) and the unattached Jamie McLeary. However, it was another day in this event and at this venue that belonged to Kelly.
“I holed a couple of smelly putts at the first two holes - one from the back edge at the first from 25 feet back down the hill then a 30-footer at the second,” said the former Tartan Tour No 1 of how he’d sparked his latest sensational start.
The first of his eagles came at the sixth, where he hit a 7-iron to 12 feet, before rounding off a great day’s working by sending a 6-iron to 15 feet at the last and also rolling in that putt. “It’s better than I expected as I have not been playing much this year and didn’t know what to expect, really,” added the leader.
On a course that was in great condition considering that 35mm of rain fell on it in a 24-hour period over the weekend, McBain also signed off with an eagle as he, too, was pleased with his opening salvo.
“That’s the hardest pins I’ve seen,” said the Aberdonian, a a joint runner-up 12 months ago. “They were in some funky places, but it was a good test. I’m not playing as much these days due to the fact I’m doing a lot more teaching at Newmachar, but I think I’m actually enjoying it more when I do get to play.”
Fenwick and McKechnie both finished with flourishes, picking up three birdies in the last five holes, while McLeary signed for six birdies on his debut in the event. “It was a weird day,” said McLeary, who recently won through to the second stage of the European Tour Qualifying School. “I only missed one green but had three bogeys and did not birdie the last.”
Fenwick said his score was “the worst it could have been” on a day when he “played beautiful”. Feeling the pinch, he returned to Dunbar to work for his former boss, Jacky Montgomery, this year and was contemplating giving up on any form of a playing career before receiving a welcome boost on the back of his recent win in the Carnegie Invitational at Skibo Castle.
“To be honest, I was getting to the stage where I just couldn’t afford it, but one of the Skibo Castle members has been kind enough to give a big sponsorship that is going to allow me to play on both the MENA Tour and the PGA EuroPro Tour for the next two years,” said the former Dunfermline Athletic defender.
Two-time winner Greig Hutcheon (Paul Lawrie Golf Centre) is in a group on 68 along 2012 champion Graham Fox (Clydeway Golf) and last year’s Order of Merit winner Paul O’Hara (North Lanarkshire Leisure Ltd).