Craigielaw’s impressive collection of Scottish titles could be added to by an unlikely source in Nurtai Saldarov, an 18-year-old from Kazakhstan. Based at the East Lothian club for the summer, the man from a country that is very much a golfing minnow is in contention at the halfway stage in the Carrick Neill Scottish Open Stroke Play Championship at Gleneagles.
After carding two 69s on the King’s Course for a two-under-par total, Saldarov sits only four shots off the lead, held by Frenchman Victor Veyret after he took advantage of benign early-morning conditions in Perthshire to sign for a 65. That was hailed as a “great score” by Euan McIntosh, one of the leading home hopes, after he slipped six off the pace following a 72.
Barassie’s Euan Walker, the highest-ranked Scot in the field, is Veyret’s closest challenger after he backed up an opening 67 with an equally-solid 68 in what has been a good test so far, while Saldarov and Laird Shepherd, the Scottish Students’ champion from Rye in Kent, are in a group three further adrift.
Saldarov may be a new name on the Scottish scene, but he has already made his mark this season, emulating Stephen Gallacher by winning the Stuart Cup as the leading qualifier in the Lothians Championship at Luffness New. He then reached the final in that before losing to the defending champion, Jamie Morris.
“I’m very pleased how I have played this summer and I’ve now had two good days here so far,” admitted Saldarov. “I am pleased that all the hard work I’ve put in is paying off and I’ve come into this tournament with a bit of momentum, which is great.”
That hard work has been overseen by the PGA professional, Eric Grandison, at his Golf School based at Craigielaw. “Eric is not only my coach but also a long-time friend,” revealed Saldarov of a relationship that was initially struck through him playing in the U.S. Kids Golf European Championships in East Lothian. “I’ve been over for the last six or seven years in the summer time and Craigielaw is a great base.”
Lloyd Saltman, Shaun McAllister, Grant Forrest and Gabrielle Macdonald all landed Scottish titles while representing Craigielaw and now Saldarov is aiming to do likewise before trying to secure a foothold in the paid ranks. “I have signed up to play in the European Tour Qualifying School first stage at Frilford Heath in September. My result then will determine what happens next,” he said.
“Golf is growing little by little in Kazakhstan and it is always great for me to play in events back there. The Kazakhstan Amateur is one of the biggest events obviously and I managed to win that last year.”
Veyret, a 21-year-old from Chantilly, is bidding to become the fourth Frenchman to claim this prize after Francois Illouz (1989 at Blairgowrie), Romain Wattel (2010 at Glasgow Gailes) and Paul Barjon (2012 at Barassie).
Referring to his early tee time, Veyret said: “7:30 was a very good time to start. The first five holes there was little wind and it got stronger and stronger. It’s the first time I’ve played an inland course in Scotland and the greens are perfect.” While still finding them a bit on the fast side, Walker has been pleased overall with his work so far. His swing is still a work in progress after deciding to reconstruct it with his coach, Mearns Castle Golf Academy-based George Boswell.
“I felt I had achieved as much as I could with the swing I had,” said the 23-year-old, a semi-finalist in this year’s South African Amateur. “It was never going to be good enough for the elite amateur level. To be honest, I’m in the process of changing just about everything, and it’s not built in yet. I have played consistently well this year without having had a massive highlight. But winning here would be absolutely amazing.”