Hearing that his big buddy and 2016 World Cup partner Russell Knox had won the Irish Open proved timely inspiration for Duncan Stewart. Playing in the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open qualifier at Longniddry, the Grantown-on-Spey man duly went birdie-birdie to effectively secure a reunion at Gullane this week with Knox.
“After hearing Knoxy had won, I said to my caddie, ‘I’m going to make sure we are playing a practice round with Knoxy at Gullane on Tuesday’. I’m delighted,” said Stewart as he savoured securing a spot in the $7 million Rolex Series event along with Conor O’Neil, Peter Whiteford and Jamie McLeary.
It had been predicted that Longniddry, a short course by modern-day standards, would be ripped apart in this 36-hole shoot-out. In soft conditions maybe but not when its fairways are golden brown and the ball is running for miles. A brisk breeze coming off the River Forth added to the test in the second round.
Four-under-par was the winning mark, posted by both Stewart and O’Neil after they carded matching 66s on both days to finish a shot ahead of Whiteford and McLeary. Stewart claimed a £5,000 top prize after winning a play-off with a par at the second extra hole. O’Neil’s consolation was a cheque for £3,750 and, of course, that spot in a star-studded field a few miles along the East Lothian coast.
Stewart and Knox struck up their friendship as they came through the ranks together in the Highlands before being at the Jacksonville University at the same time. They’ve remained close and, though poles apart in the world rankings at the time, Knox had no hesitation in picking Stewart to partner him in the World Cup in Melbourne.
“I was really frustrated during the Scottish Challenge in Aviemore as I’ve been playing great for the last seven or eight weeks and get nothing out of it,” said 34-year-old Stewart, who lives in Kirkliston and is attached to Turnhouse. “So I was pretty determined to have a good round today to get into the field at Gullane.
“I’ve still got some Tour status, so if I can have a good week in the Scottish Open that might change my whole season and that was at the back of my mind. I sent Knoxy a message last night saying, ‘something special is going to happen tomorrow’ and he replied, ‘Yeah, I can feel it’. One of guys we used to live with in the US is over here just now and I had a beer with him last night. I sent Knoxy a picture and we were all feeling quite confident coming into our respective events today.”
O’Neil, a 26-year-old Glaswegian, birdied the last to secure his spot. “It’s amazing,” he said. “I’ve never played in anything even close to being as big as the Scottish Open – events on the Challenge Tour is the biggest I’ve played.”
He wasn’t too confident coming into this test after missing the cut in a PGA EuroPro Tour event in Northumberland last week. “I was ready to put the clubs away, to be honest,” he added. “I was horrendous, so I was close to pulling out of this weekend. I think having no expectations probably helped me. It’s a free hit – you either qualify or you don’t so I’m pretty happy that it worked out.”
Whiteford, who held a European Tour card for five seasons in a row but is now a trainee PGA professional at Linlithgow, and two-time Challenge Tour winner McLeary were equally delighted to earn Gullane berths.
“It felt like hard work, to be honest, but I’m delighted and it was great to get the buzz back as I’ve not had all that much adrenaline over the last year. It’s phenomenal,” admitted Whiteford. “I didn’t expect to play brilliant and didn’t hit the ball all that well, to be honest, but my short game was good. I just hung in there.”
McLeary, who lives in Bonnyrigg but is about to move to Cupar, achieved his success on a course he’s played a lot in recent years. “I’m not surprised that three-under got in – it was pretty tough out there,” he said. “Duncan and I both got off to pretty ropey starts, so we just had to hang in there. I think it’s because I play here often, I could see where the score was going to come later in the round, but it was tough. There were times when you just had to play conservative.”
Joint-overnight leaders Gareth Wright, pictured, and Sam Locke slipped to joint-tenth after having to settle for matching 71s. It was the first time in four of these qualifiers that Wright missed out, while 19-year-old amateur Locke fell short in his bid to emulate qualifying at The Renaissance Club earlier in the week for The Open.