Playing in the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open would be nothing new to Craig Lee, but it would be some achievement if the Stirling man found himself teeing up in the event for an eighth time at Gullane next week.
Lee, after all, hasn’t played competitively since last October, so his opening two-under-par 66 on a fast-running course at Longniddry in a qualifier offering four spots in the $7 million Rolex Series was a remarkable effort. Even more so when you factor in the 41-year-old having given himself a chance of returning to his old workplace – he’s in a huge group lying a shot behind pacesetters Gareth Wright and Sam Locke – with a brand-new sets of sticks in the bag.
“That was only my fourth game since October,” said Lee, who held a European Tour card for five seasons in a row and finished a career-high 59th in the Race to Dubai in 2013, the year he lost to Thomas Bjorn in a play-off in the European Masters,
“I’d packed it in and have been doing other things so I just don’t have the time now to play golf. If I was going to play anything, though, I was going to play this. So that round was a pleasant surprise. I’ve got a brand-new set of Mizuno clubs in the bag – I was taking the plastic wrappers off as I was going round. I didn’t have a clue how far half the clubs would go.”
While Wright only used his driver once as he stuck to a gameplan that saw him plot his way around as balls were running up to 50 yards, Lee hit his big stick as much as possible to try and cash in at driveable par-4s. “I’d love to be there, I really would,” he said of being in the hunt for one of those coveted spots at Gullane, where he shot a 66 in making the cut in 2015, having tied for 16th behind Justin Rose at Royal Aberdeen the year before. “It would be the only level that I’d like to play golf at again, but we’ll find out quite how permanent class is tomorrow.”
Wright’s start was ominous given that he’s been among the qualifiers in the three previous stagings of this event, winning at Kilmarnock (Barassie) 12 months ago after spreadeagling the field with an opening 64. “I think the reason I’ve done well in the past is a desire to play at a higher level more than anything,” said the 36-year-old West Linton professional after his bogey-free opening effort. “I can also stay at home and, of course, I played most of my junior golf on courses down on this coast.”
Taking up where he left off when winning Tuesday’s Open qualifier at the nearby Renaissance Club, 19-year-old amateur Locke made five birdies. “I’m feeling confident - I’m feeling in control, which is a nice feeling,” he said. “So, if I can get a few more putts going in, I should be in.”
Two other former European Tour card holders, Peter Whiteford and Jamie McLeary, are also in the group on 66, the latter making three birdies in six holes from the 11th before dropping his only shot of the day at the last.
“I practice here, so this is my unofficial home club so I know how to play the course and I was actually hoping that it was a bit windier and trickier because then it’s more about whether you know the place or not,” said the 37-year-old, a two-time Challenge Tour winner.
The others sitting two shots off the lead also include double Scottish PGA champion Chris Kelly while Calum Hill, who made the cut in last month’s US Open at Shinnecock Hills after passing two qualifying tests for that, is also in the mix on 67.
“The conditions are definitely a lot different to what I am used to over in the States, but I hit it brilliant off the tee, leaving myself a lot of wedges and hitting a lot of them quite close,” said the 23-year-old, who played his amateur golf at Aberdour and Muckhart man.
“If I can go out tomorrow and shoot five or six-under, then I will hopefully I should get into the field for Gullane without too much problems.”