Alex Noren, the second seed and Scottish Open champion, spared a complete cull of leading contenders and main crowd-pullers as the Swede dug deep to win the last of 24 ties on a dramatic second day in the Aberdeen Asset Management Paul Lawrie Match Play at Archerfield Links.
There’s no denying that the tournament promoters would have preferred that Ryder Cup contenders Chris Wood and Matt Fitzpatrick, the tournament host himself and fellow Scots Marc Warren, Richie Ramsay and Craig Lee were all still standing as the event heads into the quarter-finals this morning on the East Lothian coast.
What’s the point, though, in crying over spilt milk and, in Noren, the event still has a world top 50 player in the title hunt while five others – Oliver Fisher, Anthony Wall, Haydn Porteous, Alejandro Canizares and James Morrison – all have European Tour titles to their name. Maximillian Kieffer and Johan Carlsson are the odd ones out but, like the others, they are in the last eight on merit.
With Wood, the top seed, and third-ranked Fitzpatrick both having bowed out earlier than they’d have liked as the English duo try to hold on to automatic spots in the European team for next month’s Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, the door looks to have been opened for Noren to follow up his Scottish Open triumph at Castle Stuart a month ago.
“I love these kind of courses and I’ve not played match play since the WGC three years ago, so I was looking forward to this week,” said the 34-year-old after recording second-day wins over two rising stars in European golf – Italian teenager Renato Paratore and Spaniard Nacho Elvira.
The latter provided Noren with his toughest of three tests so far, admitting the confidence he gained from chalking up a fifth European Tour triumph had definitely been a factor as he came from one down with eight holes to play to win 2&1. “Obviously it helps when it gets a little tight, as it did at the end there,” he said. “Succeeding when you feel pressure is the main thing I gained from the Scottish Open because it’s hard to practice that.”
Noren, who now plays compatriot and occasional practice partner Carlsson, was delighted that his win in the Highlands was followed by Henrik Stenson becoming Sweden’s first men’s major winner with his victory in The Open at Royal Troon a week later. “We’ve been longing for that in Sweden, and it’s great for the whole country, and especially Henrik. And the way he did it was quite amazing.” That is also a fitting description for the transformation that Morrison has encountered this week. The 31-year-old Englishman had failed to break par in his previous five events, making early exits in all of them. Yet, he’s made it to the last eight here by covering 43 holes in 18-under-par. After beating Graeme Storm then Michael Hoey in his second-day matches, Morrison revealed he’d figured out what had been wrong over a beer or three with his Scottish coach, Hugh Marr, in New York last week after the US PGA Championship at Baltusrol.
“My backswing was getting so short and so flat and when that happens, I can’t see myself fading it,” he said. “So the ball is either going straight right or whipping left, which I found out last week at the PGA and you can’t play majors from short in the left-hand rough. Me and Hugh figured it out over a few beers in New York at the weekend and I feel like I’ve really cracked it.”
In addition to being under par in his three impressive victories, the two-time European Tour winner was round in ten-under in the pro-am on Wednesday. “When I got here, I just loved the look of the golf course, and my confidence grows pretty quickly,” said the Guildford man. “The minute I get my backswing in good position, I can go off and running. I’m putting it well, hitting it great. I’m very, very happy.”
He now meets Canizares, the man who clipped Fitzpatrick’s wings after the Hazeltine hopeful had been a combined 13-under and foot perfect in winning his two opening games.
It was the Spaniard who produced the fireworks in their last-16 clash, though, which he won comfortably by covering 15 holes flawlessly in seven under. “I played great this afternoon – the best so far this week,” said another two-time European Tour winner.
They say there’s a good woman behind every successful man and that is certainly the case with Canizares at the moment. He has Janet Squire on his bag these days and is benefitting from her demeanour like others before him, including former Scottish Open champion Jeev Milkha Singh. “She is very calm on the golf course and it feels like I can’t get as much, let’s say, mad on the golf course or upset,” he said, smiling. “Sometimes you just get a little overwhelmed with bad shots, but she keeps me calmer than normal. She’s been out here for 23 years, so it’s a great partner to have on the bag.”
Lawrie admitted he felt “gutted” after losing to Australian left-hander Richard Green at the 19th despite being two up with three to play while Warren, a semi-finalist 12 months ago at Murcar Links, also relinquished holding the upper hand as he then went out in the afternoon along with Ramsay.