Striking while the irons are hot. Or not. The ones both Mikko Ilonen and Stephen Gallacher had in their bags were stone cold at the start of the £5.5 million Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open due to the fact they are brand new, yet they helped both of them get off to good starts at Dundonald Links.
On a day when it was benign early on before a westerly wind soon picked up, Finn Ilonen produced the stick-out performance with a splendid seven-under 65 to lead by two shots from a group that includes Rickie Fowler, Padraig Harrington and Ian Poulter.
Ilonen, a former Amateur champion, hailed his flawless effort as the “round of my season” and those Titleist 718 irons certainly contributed to that. The 37-year-old, after all, had come into this event on the back of four successive missed cuts, so he was probably as surprised as anyone to find himself leading the way in a tournament boasting the strongest field of the season on the European Tour.
“I’m not going to say it’s been the whole season that’s been pretty bad, but it’s certainly been a good part of it,” said Ilonen, a five-time winner on the circuit, including both the Irish Open and Volvo World Match Play Championship in 2014. “So it’s nice to get something going and make a few birdies and have no mistakes on the card. Other than the tee shot on No 8, where I skulled my rescue a bit, I didn’t really miss a shot and also kept my head in it.”
Asked what the difference had been from recent weeks, he added: “I actually changed my irons on Tuesday, putting the 718s in, and it can be just little things that give you a little extra confidence. I struck the ball better than for probably two or three years.”
Gallacher was striping those same irons on the range after getting his hands on them for the first time this week as well, and they didn’t disappoint either under the gun. The 42-year-old, who missed this event at Castle Stuart 12 months ago as he recovered from a wrist operation, struggled off the tee so was delighted to open with a 68, leaving him alongside compatriot Richie Ramsay and American Matt Kuchar.
“I’m off to a good start as it was a tough day from start to finish out there,” said Gallacher after illuminating his card with a burst of three successive birdies from the 12th, holing from eight feet then six feet before two-putting the long 14th. “It was basically about hanging on for the five holes before that as I didn’t drive it great and was struggling a bit, but my short game was sharp and that kept me in it. It was tough to get it close. The greens were firming up. Since I played in the pro-am on Tuesday, I noticed an unbelievable difference with how firm they were.”
Having watched Richie Ramsay and David Drysdale swell the Scottish contingent in next week’s 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale to seven through their performances in the Irish Open on Sunday, Gallacher is aiming to do likewise this weekend. Three spots are up for grabs for the leading non-exempt players, providing they finish in the top 10.
“I’d love to play in the Open, so I know I need to play well,” he said. “I saw a couple of the guys do it last week, which was brilliant to get more Scots in it. It’s been my goal for the last three weeks to get to Birkdale and now this is my only chance, so this is a good start to that.”
Taking up where he left off when closing with a 65 to tie for second behind Spaniard Jon Rahm in the Irish Open, Ramsay birdied those same three holes as Gallacher in the middle of the back nine before “making dinner taste better” as he then got up and down from a bunker through the green at the 18th for another gain.
“It was tricky out there in the wind and the temperature also dropped a little bit towards the end,” said the Edinburgh-based Aberdonian, who was in contention at Castle Stuart a year ago with nine holes to go before tying for sixth behind Swede Alex Noren. “I’m very happy with the way I played as I stayed patient after being level-par through eight. I then got a little run going on the back nine to give me a bit of impetus and then kept that momentum going.”
Fowler, the 2015 winner at Gullane before missing out last year due to scheduling issues, hit the ground running once again on a links with a flawless effort in the morning, when Poulter’s promising start came as a nice surprise to the Englishman. “I hadn’t hit all that well the last couple of days so went out with no expectations at all,” he confessed. Those expectations have now risen after an effort that contained a tap-in eagle at the 14th, as well as five birdies.
Harrington, who has recovered from the arm injury sustained when he was hit by one of his amateur pro-am partners as he swung a club before The Memorial tournament on the PGA Tour last month, was helped by a “minor miracle” as he came in late in the day to join a group on five-under that also includes American Paul Peterson and South African Andrew Dodt.
“I was lucky to find my ball at the 16th,” said the Irishman of a wayward tee shot and then putting his provisional into a bunker. “I was staring at a 7 but, after taking a pen drop and managing to get it near the green, I holed the par putt from around 90 feet.” Making the most of that break, the three-time major winner then chipped in at the next for birdie.