Dunhill Links: Nick Dougherty battles back

Sir Ian Botham jumps across a burn on the third hole at Carnoustie. Picture: Jane Barlow
Sir Ian Botham jumps across a burn on the third hole at Carnoustie. Picture: Jane Barlow
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BASED purely on face value, there would seem little doubt that Peter Uihlein’s 60 at Kingsbarns – he came within an inch of recording the first 59 in European Tour history – was the pick of the day in the second round of the Dunhill Links Championship.

As a purveyor of the game – his father, Wally, is the CEO of Acushnet, which includes the Titleist brand – even Uihlein, however, would acknowledge it had a rival for that tag, even though it came down in the depths of the leaderboard.

Twenty-four hours after signing for an 86 – it included a horror-story 12 at the 18th – at Carnoustie, Nick Dougherty, the man who was flying high when he won this title six years ago but has since fallen on troubled times, produced a contender for the gutsiest round ever witnessed in the Royal & Ancient game.

If his confidence, already at a low ebb, had been shattered, the Liverpudlian did a splendid job disguising it in the shape of an 18-shot improvement – a four-under-par 68 on the Old Course. He is still lying last, but Dougherty will walk on to the first tee at Kingsbarns today with his head held high, as will Uihlein when he moves on to St Andrews.

Two weeks after Jim Furyk became the sixth player on the PGA Tour to sign for a 59, his fellow American was fractions away from becoming the first to achieve the magical feat on the European circuit. With two holes to play, having recorded two eagles and seven birdies after starting at the tenth, he was on the cusp of history.

Unable to convert a 20-foot birdie opportunity at the short eighth, it left the 24-year-old, winner of the Madeira Island Open earlier this year, needing an eagle three at his closing hole. He safely found the treacherous green in two but, after being made to wait as his amateur playing partner, Scottish Boys’ champion Bradley Neil, required a ruling, watched his 35-foot eagle putt slide past the hole by no more than an inch before coming to rest three inches to the left-hand side of it.

He’s the 16th player to card 60 on the European Tour, Welshman David Llewellyn, back in 1988, having been the first to achieve a feat that has since been emulated by, amongst others, Darren Clarke (twice), Ernie Els, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam and, just 12 months ago also at Kingsbarns, Branden Grace.

“It was cool,” declared Uihlein of his bid to join a worldwide 59 club that includes US-based Invernesian Russell Knox, who achieved the feat on the Web.com Tour in July, and Frenchman Adrien Mork, who did likewise in a Challenge Tour event in Morocco seven years ago. “I knew I had to make my eagle putt and gave it a go, hitting a good putt,” added the world No 100. “I actually thought it would come back to the right at the end but it kept going left.”

Renowned for being one of the game’s laid-back figures, even Uihlein was feeling excited over his final few holes. “I tried to stay with my routines and do what I felt was comfortable, but I definitely wasn’t that calm underneath,” he added, having catapulted himself into contention with his 12-under-par salvo on a crowded leaderboard at the halfway stage in the £3.1 million event.

At the end of a day when only two players in the top 34 failed to break 70 – conditions simply don’t get any easier on Scotland’s east coast – Englishman Tom Lewis celebrated his return to St Andrews, where he won the Links Trophy two years ago in one of his final appearances as an amateur, in style. A 65 moved him to the head of affairs on 15-under-par, matching the joint-lowest two-round total on the European Tour this season.

The 22-year-old, lying 155th in the Race to Dubai and with around £100,000 to make up on Italian Lorenzo Gagli to retain his card, leads by one from on-form Dutchman Joost Luiten – the recent KLM Open winner is lurking menacingly after his 63 at Kingsbarns – with six players, including Uihlein, a further shot back.

“I played well today and didn’t ever really get under too much pressure,” said Lewis. “I drove it well and I was aggressive, too. Links golf is always going to suit me because of my flat ball flight and I just feel at home when I step on to a links course.

“I think I’ve got a great chance. If I can just be patient tomorrow and be as aggressive as I have been, and if I can shoot in the red, get anywhere in the 60s, I’ll be in a good position to go into Sunday on a course that really suits me.”

He has got a posse of compatriots for company near the top of the leaderboard. Tommy Fleetwood, bidding to make it a Scottish double after winning the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles last month, is in the group on 13-under, as are Oliver Wilson, Richard McEvoy and Mark Foster. Eddie Pepperell and Chris Paisley are also in the top 15, the latter after a 62 at Kingsbarns.

Still in contention, too, is George Murray, the Fifer recovering from a three-hole wobble to card a battling 69 at Carnoustie.

“It’s a course where you’re never comfortable and often hear yourself saying, ‘Oh no’,” said the leading Scot. “But I managed to get in under par so I’m happy with that.”